Notes on Sunny War’s “Simple Syrup”

Sunny War

No More Beatlemania, Once Was Enough!
It’s Time for Sunny War Mania!
Simple Syrup (Henhouse/Org, 2021)

“Ain’t got no Joni Mitchell 8-tracks in the car”
-Weird Al Yankovic, “I’ll Be Mellow When I’m Dead”

From roughly age 15 to age 50 those lyrics encapsulated my sense of what Joni Mitchell had to offer. She embodied the overly laid-back Southern California soft rock of the early ‘70s. Joni, the Eagles, Dan Fogelberg. Coked up and gazing down at their navels. Oy, and the sounds, the all too super soft sounds. The lyrics occasionally brushed up against introspection but the rule of the day seemed to be don’t harsh anyone’s mellow. 

Okay, broad strokes, admittedly. Over time I sensed there was more to Joni Mitchell than serving as shorthand for ‘70s excess in Weird Al’s ode to hyperactivity. But I didn’t seek out her records for years. It was my partner Joh and my uncle Steve who subtly and unknowingly swayed me with passing references to Joni Mitchell albums. My subsequent deep dive started with a $5 copy of Court and Spark and quickly led me to her stunning string of ‘70s albums. Court and Spark followed by Hissing of Summer Lawns, then Hejira. (I still haven’t even gotten to Blue yet.)

As I absorbed those records, I tried to imagine the joy of following Joni Mitchell as the peak of her career unfolded. Year after year, record after record. In the midst of discovering Mitchell, I read an interview in Razorcake with another singer/acoustic guitarist/songwriter, Sunny War. Wholly different first impression, though. War struck me as a good storyteller and engaging performer. She came from, and was still immersed in, punk rock. I couldn’t formulate a sense of her sound, which sparked my curiosity. 

I started with her third release, With the Sun (2018). I was immediately drawn to the understated vocals and sparse instrumentation, the first-listen melodies, and the confident, vulnerable lyrical perspective. She melts the elements together in ways that slice through the stress of any day and go straight to my heart, slow things down in ways that open me up, help me breath deeper. That’s not to say War is dishing out some sort of “Take It Easy” / Hallmark fluff. She wades through heavy, heavy stuff, but she contrasts the density of the lyrics with the strikingly subtle beauty of her songs.

It’s like the calm at the center of a hurricane, the sound of a person taking a moment to reflect and face her demons before reentering the flow and turmoil of daily life. Sunny War seems to provide her own shelter from the storms, which yields a sense of relief for me, if that’s the right word, like, I’m so glad she was able to take the time and I wish she could stay longer in that safe harbor longer before sailing on again. Which implies that I’m worried about her ability to survive those rough seas, and I don’t think that holds up. She’s tough enough to make it. She’ll survive. Then I wonder, will I? Maybe I need to more safe harbor time. Am I really dealing with my own storms? A Sunny War record can get in your head.

This was true throughout With the Sun and its successor, Shell of a Girl (2019). I started drafting this piece as I listened to War’s latest record, Simple Syrup (2021), for the first time. I knew she would deliver again, and she has. 

I’ve got a couple of examples to support that theory, but I qualify them with this: the lyrics stand on their own but give only a fraction of the picture. Like a screenplay compared to the finished film, which could hold true for any singer/band, but far more so with War. 

On Simple Syrup her range has never been more dynamic. She sinks to the depths of self loathing on “Kiss a Loser”: “Tell you I love you while wishing you were dead / Smoke and I drink and puke in the kitchen sink.”

Then on the next song, “A Love So True,” she’s “dreaming of the days your eyes meet mine.”  

And with “Like Nina,” War revises my initial Joni Mitchell comparison: 

“Tell me that I look like Nina

Got her same demeanor

Same sad look in my eyes

Girls like us don’t dance like Tina

Sing love songs like Aretha

Ain’t got no Beyhive”

Simple Syrup is the latest proof Sunny War is in the midst of one of those remarkable year after year, record after record streaks. 


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