The Solitary Strength of Tomberlin’s Debut 'At Weddings'
“Hopped on a plane for the first time today/ I can’t look back”– this is how Tomberlin starts her debut album, At Weddings. These are fitting lyrics to lead with– like Lorde, Tomberlin considers new experiences, such as flying on a plane for the first time, equally parts terrifying and vital after a relatively secluded upbringing. Sarah Beth Tomberlin grew up in a deeply religious Baptist family, as a homeschooled pastor’s daughter who was surrounded by music both in church and at home during her childhood. She wrote most of At Weddings during her late teens and early twenties, a cathartic process she describes as “literal survival mode” during a period of deep isolation in her life.
The result is Tomberlin’s resoundingly beautiful debut album, released on Saddle Creek Records last Friday following a release on Joyful Noise Recordings last October. Tomberlin uses acoustic guitar, piano, Wurlitzer, and her voice throughout these ten songs to create a sound that is dream-like yet grounded. These songs are sparse, but that’s not to say that they’re simple.
Rather, they sound like hymns, which Tomberlin notes as her biggest musical influence, given that she was surrounded by them growing up. Tomberlin leans into this influence while also juxtaposing it with the lyrical content of her music, in which she often questions the impact that her religious upbringing has had on her identity. “Feeling bad for saying/ Oh my God/ No I’m not kidding”, she sings on “Any Other Way”, a slightly humorous illustration of the guilt that she associates with questioning her religious upbringing.
Tomberlin’s questioning of her religious upbringing is also a questioning of the self, and reveals a longing for guidance and a feeling of belonging. Throughout the album, Tomberlin questions what her “true” identity is, or has the ability to be, after being shaped by one way of thinking for most of her life. She searches for guidance through a self-help book on the electrifying “Self-Help”; on “A Video Game”, Tomberlin wishes she was a “hero with something beautiful to say”.
She also relates this desire of belonging to the relationships in her life. “Untitled 2” invokes the experimental serenity of Grouper, in which Tomberlin’s drowned vocals float over a sea of guitars and reverb (the song was surprisingly recorded on her phone). The lyrics reveal a conversation that Tomberlin is having with herself about love and all its inevitable shortcomings: “Love is a four lettered word/ A curse and a lie/ I slept with a ghost I’m convinced”.
On “Seventeen”, a seemingly light and airy song (which is mirrored in the music video for the song), Tomberlin shares a similar sentiment: “Love is mostly war/ and love, what is it for?”. This is one of the characteristics of Tomberlin’s music that makes her debut album so intriguing– her ability to craft effortlessly beautiful songs juxtaposed with the thought-provoking weight of her lyrics. On “I’m Not Scared”, perhaps the album’s most devastating song, Tomberlin does just this as she asserts, “To be a woman is to be in pain” over a bare piano melody. Her voice is front and center here, as she sings with a tranquil, composed manner– there’s a heaviness to her lyrics, but she vocalizes them in a way that shows she’s chipping away at this heaviness little by little, simply by allowing the words to leave her mouth.
There’s a solitary strength personified in Tomberlin’s debut– the isolation that she faced is confronted on these ten songs, and through this confrontation inherently lies strength. This is illustrated at the end of “Seventeen”, when Tomberlin declares, “You always say that I look so tough/ But it’s because I’m tough”. Reminiscent of Mitski’s “I Don’t Smoke” (“I am stronger than you give me credit for”), this lyric as well as the entirety of At Weddings is a testament to not only finding strength through adversity, but also to speaking with honesty even if it’s difficult, even it goes against what you’ve always known. Tomberlin has said that if people could take one thing away from her music, it would be “You are not alone out there!”– with her debut album, she’s done this and more.