The front of Gaelynn Lea’s new album shows a drawing of a little white fishing boat atop a blue sea, anchor chain disappearing into the depths, with a rich orange sky stretching away above. It might as well be painted on a charming handmade proscenium on the stage of a beloved community theater. Learning How to Stay has that kind of feel: winsome, twee and just a bit precious.
Lea has musical chops: she’s a classically trained violinist and she can carry a tune. Learning How to Stay includes a pair of instrumental tunes that focus on her violin playing. “Jim and Judy’s Wedding (Larry Unger),” a sweetly sentimental piece that sounds a little like Pachelbel’s Canon in D. The other is “Metsakukkia,” Lea’s take on a traditional Finnish number that is often played on accordion. Her rendition features violin, of course, and she evokes an old-world sensibility as she plays through dissonant passages and rich melodic figures. Of all the tracks on the album, “Metsakukkia” has the most depth and nuance.
For all her musical ability, there’s a stylized recital-music aesthetic to many of the songs on Learning How to Stay: Lea has a knack for pairing sing-songy melodies with wide-eyed lyrics steeped in self-actualization. She seeks throughout the album to be her best self, and she wants to help you do the same. Lea sings with wistful idealism on opener “Bound by a Thread,” gauzy layers of violin blending with her voice. A bounding mix of electric guitar, piano and drums carries “Dark to Light and Dark Again,” and Lea sings about how people can be so much more than they first appear to be, her vocals augmented here and there by a cutesy drum fill or a folksy guitar solo-harmonica breakdown. Wandering in the forest becomes a metaphor for self-discovery on “Lost in the Woods” as Lea issues exhortations over relentlessly upbeat piano comping. “Forgive yourself, but don’t give yourself away,” she advises on one of too many lyrical tropes that sound like something you’d see on a PowerPoint slide accompanying a motivational speaker.
As it happens, Lea is a public speaker who addresses disability awareness (she was born with a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, and adapted a cello-like technique for playing the violin). Her advocacy is a noble calling, and one that certainly cross-pollinates her music. As inspiring a figure as she is, though, Learning How to Stay bends too far toward sappy, reducing the strength of her message into a string of platitudes that are easy to swallow, and just as hard to remember later.