Raised in a deeply religious family that shunned secular music, Nashville (by way of California) musician Juni Ata was in his 20s before he heard his first Bob Dylan song. The revelation is shocking when you realize just how lyrically literate Ata is on his debut, Saudade. You would almost need to go back to Dylan to find a consistently comparable songwriting peer.
Saudade’s sound, despite serving as an ideal soundtrack to the exhaustion of pain, fear and uncertainty that 2020 has offered up so far, also has a timeless quality thanks in part to his inventive use of horns and orchestral instruments throughout. Like hearing an Elliott Smith record for the first time it’s almost crushingly beautiful. His delivery, Ata’s vocals sounding remarkable like Van Morrison, the words and the layers of music are simply impressive, but you don’t realize how so until after several listens.
The album’s first song, “Philadelphia,” about loss and moving on sets up a powerful template for what follows and while all of the album is not about loss – songs like the more up tempo “Good Enough Ain’t Bad” are downright optimistic – each track does share an emotional weightiness, good and bad, with that opener.
Spread across 11 tracks, the record is a slow burn to be certain, requiring repeated listens to really latch onto the real charm of these songs. It may take a little time, but the investment is well worth it in the end. A remarkably powerful record from start to finish.