“At a Snail’s Pace,” the first song from Sarah Golley‘s As We Crawl, begins with a single note from a cello. A piano enters with pulsing chords and the cello begins to meander. A viola follows suit, bringing violins in with it. Before long the song is rising and falling on rich waves of harmony. Then Golley’s voice comes in, strong and sure. The music quickens.
“Please understand / I am not demanding / Please understand / I am only giving / Please understand / I just want you near me / I don’t understand / Why can’t we just be?”
Then the music peaks and Golley unleashes her voice in full. “I do not need permission to feel / I do not need permission to be / ‘Cause I already am,” she sings, at the top of her voice. The song continues to grow and change. Vocal harmonies await, amounting to a full chorus by the end of the song. It’s a fitting introduction to the rest of As We Crawl, an 11-song album that is one of the most ambitious — and successfully ambitious — recordings to come out of the Elm City in quite a while.
The New Haven-based Golley has been performing since 2014. As a solo act, she has played here and toured the Northeast, garnering notice from the Village Voice in the process. Hearing her music, one can easily understand why. Golley draws from pop, soul, jazz, and classical music to create her sound. On several of the tracks, she employs a string quartet to realize her vision. But as often, it’s just Golley and her voice, a keyboard, and percussion, a few simple elements deployed to inventive and delightful effect.
So on “Over Time,” Golley turned her layered vocals into a horn section. Her dancing feet, wearing tap shoes, become the drums. An undulating keyboard keeps time. Other voices rise from the background to make the song huge and still danceable. Then “Like a Royal Reptile” finds Golley at her most lush, climbing into the song on rising piano runs before the rhythm begins to gallop off on fleet Latin-inflected drums. On “Into the Flames” Golley allows herself a little austerity and a little dissonance. She takes advantage of the open soundscape to craft a melody that trips over bar lines before rocking on a see-saw of woozy chords underneath seething vocals.
“Out,” meanwhile, might be the most straightforwardly beautiful song on the album, with the piano repeating a propulsive melody that lets the string quartet roam while Golley croons through some of the album’s more hopeful lyrics. “As we dance unashamed of our scars / Pressed together as a guide to our hearts,” she sings. “Our scars pressed together as a guide to our hearts.” A touch of brass near the song’s end feels like a call to arms.
Then there’s “On the Treadmill of Thought,” a bracing, exhilarating piece of music made up solely of overdubbed vocals by Golley, It’s the most pointed, harmonically dense song on As We Crawl and also one of its most mesmerizing. “Absolutely no room for fear in this heart,” Golley sings at first. The vocals layer, growing more frantic and deliciously dissonant, held together by a tight swing in the rhythm of her singing. A scream pierces through the texture, but the song keeps going. It ends at last with a repeated line — “I need to gather up the pieces that slipped through the cracks” — that ends with a tag: “and focus on the music.”
Golley’s lyrics have a lot of this kind of sentiment in them, of struggling to overcome things — whether it’s the past, or personal insecurities, or a bad relationship, or the state of the world. But Golley also seems to know that the answer lies in the music she makes, the way she writes and the way she plays and sings. The album may called As We Crawl, but in song after song, Golley has already taken flight.