I Need to Start a Garden, the full-length debut from Portland-based singer-songwriter Haley Heynderickx, could just as well have been an impressive installment in an already illustrious career. I’d never heard of Heynderickx, but she seems to be a kind of Sharon Van Etten via a bedroom in the Pacific Northwest, or, like, Nick Drake as an Asian-American woman, or, I dunno, Cat Power’s stoned little sister. Which is to say, Heynderickx is a more assured, restrained, and idiosyncratic songwriter than many artists ever hope to be.
There’s no clear entry for getting at what exactly Heynderickx manages to do in her songwriting. The one-two-three caress of “No Face,” “The Bug Collector,” and “Jo” that opens the album lays bare its underpinnings, with Heynderickx cooing over plucky guitar, rarely rising above a late-night whisper. Occasionally fuzz bass and horns fill out the backing track, a la In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. She sings about race, alienation, bad relationships, and depression, all with enough conviction and fire to keep the album from faltering into something ephemeral or delicate or sentimental. The songs are so meticulous, and they play on such charming familiar sounds, I could almost convince myself I knew them before I heard them.
The familiarity is primarily one of the album’s strengths, though sometimes it’s a weakness. The album’s centerpiece, the 8 minute “Worth It,” is a solid song, but I find myself mistaking Heynderickx for Angel Olsen throughout, in a way that makes me ask whether the song succeeds on Heynderickx’s terms or merely has me wishing I were listening to an Olsen album. The resemblance between the two artist’s voices and songwriting isn’t a slight against the song or against Heynderickx per se, but when the song constitutes a full quarter of the album’s runtime, it’s a little frustrating that a songwriter as skilled as Heynderickx gets lost in her own composition. That may just be my own impression, and aside from a few over precious moments, it’s the only criticism I can really level at the album.
While poignant and lean, the first side of the album pales in comparison to the album’s stellar second half, which seems to start around the last minute of “Worth It” as it bursts into a spacey guitar dirge. “Show You a Body” is a staccato cascade of melancholy and yearning, unsettling in its placidity. The Velvet Underground themselves would be impressed by the propulsive “Oom Sha La La,” it’s so damn infectious and weird. Album highlight “Untitled God Song” has Heynderickx’s guitar smoldering with each strum as she muses about a thick-hipped, big-lipped deity whose wears knock-off Coach. Catchy, thoughtful, odd, and charming, there really aren’t any cracks to be found in the backstretch.
The album ends with “Drinking Song,” an ever so slightly off-kilter blues ditty, and the psychedelic wash over the wordless chorus gives the impression of Heynderickx singing into the void, defiantly casting her own light in a creeping darkness. Here’s to hoping her light only grows brighter.