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ACL Fest 2017: Karen Elson’s study in light and dark

Chad Swiatecki

“I’m a happy person. I just can’t write happy songs.”

That obvious truth came from singer Karen Elson about three-quarters of the way through a Saturday set that was something of a study in contrast: bleak and troubled lyrical characters presented in a sterling shine of pop-folk songwriting.

Elson’s songs are dominantly of two types; with the narrator in the wider world yearning for a lost love, or anticipating dread and certain danger. There’s lots of birds circling in the sky, curtains being drawn and ships changing course – lyrical still life paintings that capture the singer in moments of loss and anticipatory darkness.

Left with just a lyric sheet one might take Elson’s material to be all morose and Nick Cave adjacent, but the musical framework of her songs lets them bathe in her sunbright voice. It’s a combination that wouldn’t work in most instances, and if Elson ever opted to tone down the dread in favor of more oblique or even upbeat themes it’s not out of the question to imagine her appealing to fans the way Jewel took over America two decades ago.