Sunny War started her career as a busker on the pier in Venice Beach, California, and moonlighting in Los Angeles punk band Anus Kings. But since her 2018 breakthrough album, With the Sun, she’s leaned more toward a folk aesthetic with bitingly honest lyrics and a groovy fusion of American roots styles.
All of this is held together with her masterful fingerpicking and an array of backing players – a less-is-more array of piano, harmonica, bass, and other instruments that vary from song to song.
Bouncing atop it all is War’s hornlike, if occasionally mumbling, vocal approach that makes the words she sings feel less like storytelling and more like other instruments in the band. This is a jazz technique akin to vocalists like Billie Holiday, and Sunny War’s use of it very much sets her apart from so many others carrying folk and roots music forward these days.
Turn on her latest disc, Shell of a Girl, which released August 24 on Hen House Studios, and you can catch words and phrases like “the girl you knew is gone” and “minimum wage” and “burning with desire” and “voices in your head.” If you feel inclined to zero in on lyricism, you’ll have to slow down and listen closely. But regardless, the gist is there.
Shell of a Girl is, at once, dark and hopeful – a perfect combination of vibes for the year in which it was released. And though she tackles some topics, like the tendency to medicate children (“Drugs Are Bad”), the album is more of a rumination on adulthood and how to navigate it when one realizes everyone’s just faking it until they make it.
This is captured by the cloudiness and darkness of every arrangement – even those that hop along at a steady clip are punctuated with minor chords and some amount of dissonance. That kind of juxtaposition is also reflected in the stage name she chose for herself.
It’s also audible in “Where the Lost Get Found,” a clear standout on the disc, with its vocal swing and rhythmic swagger. Its instrumentation feels like a sunny day, but its lyrics struggle with mortality and meaning. “Sleepwalk to your slumber,” she sings. “Six feet underground … Six feet under, all the lost get found.”
“Love Became Pain” is a complex coming-of-age narrative about learning to understand love and loss in various ways as one grows and changes. War’s near-monotone vocals gallop atop a steady driving snare rhythm, never stumbling, never letting up until they hit the wall at the end. And then, like the kind of train War spent her youth hoboing upon, the song just stops.
Shell of a Girl is not a feel-good album, but there’s definitely catharsis within it. It is, however, a statement from a relatively new artist who has the rare skill of wielding so many pieces of the world’s darkness, and then artfully spinning them to light.