It’s not rare to say music “transported” you somewhere else. A pop song can take you to the middle of a dance floor, even amid a pandemic, while a folk tune can conjure a wooded path before your eyes. But Valerie June is an especially talented navigator of alternate realities.
Since the debut of her first album, 2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone, the Tennessee-born singer/songwriter has positioned herself as a master of transportive country-soul. In 2017, she left this earthly plane altogether to carry us into a bluesy wonderland on “Astral Plane,” a standout from that year’s The Order Of Time. “Is there a light / you have inside of you?” she asks, seemingly questioning herself, before later adding, “Dancing on the astral plane / On holy water cleansing rain / Floating through the stratosphere / Blind, but you see so clear.”
On her new album The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, we find June where we last left her: dancing among celestial bodies most of us could only dream of touching. But this time she seems to have answered the question “Is there a light?” firmly for herself. There is light—so much of it—and June, with help from former Kendrick Lamar producer Jack Splash, seems determined to scatter that light as far and wide as humanly possible.
Splash’s hip-hop sensibilities combined with June’s breezy soul create an otherworldly effect. The Moon and Stars is where soul and folk and country and Afrobeats meet up for an aerial dance through a planetarium, La La Land-style. Gospel and rock weave in and out of this music, too, but still leaving room for June’s reggae spirit. The best example of her worry-free style is on “Smile,” the record’s jubilant centerpiece. “I dust it off / I get back up,” she confidently sings. Bolstered by a cheerful guitar and snappy keys, “Smile” is more than a happy-go-lucky anthem—it’s a display of Black perseverance.
“As a Black woman, a song like ‘Smile’ makes me think about everything my race has gone through, and how positivity can be its own form of protest,” June says of the song in the album’s press materials. “It’s saying, ‘We are oppressed, we have so much against us—but the one thing you’re not gonna take from me is my smile.’”
Joy as a means of protest is nothing new. English rockers IDLES literally released an album called Joy As An Act of Resistance in 2018, using their righteous punk flair to share a message of acceptance in mosh pits and beyond. But soul singers have been channeling perseverance into their songs for decades. In 1969, Nina Simone said to be “young, gifted and black” was a “mighty sweet thing.” Aretha Franklin repeated that message a few years later. Fast-forward a half-century, and Beyoncé and JAY-Z broadcast Black love and success as an act of protest on their 2018 joint album Everything Is Love. And here, on The Moon and Stars, June assumes her place in the generations-long tradition of using hope and Black joy as a method of resistance.
It’s easy to compare June to soul icons like Simone and Ella Fitzgerald, and that obvious heritage is not lost on June, who even recruits legendary soul singer Carla Thomas to sing on one of the album’s strongest numbers, “Call Me A Fool.” June surrenders herself to a “new love,” despite those who might call her foolish. “I’ve been wishing things had been different,” she sings. “But I guess the cards, they fall the way they’re meant.” It’s also one of June’s most powerful vocal showings on the album, as she adds a full-bodied growl to each line of the chorus. She changes the mood suddenly on the following song, ‘Fallin,’” where she hoists a different kind of white flag: “I am willing to let go / what was never mine,” she sings, with more than a hint of melancholy in her usual lilt.
Speaking of Black legends, June also pays homage to the great Sun Ra on “Stardust Scattering,” which was inspired by the philosopher and prolific experimentalist’s poetry. “There’s a flow to everything,” she posits, sounding perfectly content to drift along to the song’s merry horns and winding, cosmic guitar wherever they may lead her. “Merrily life is but a dream / Consciousness directs the stream,” she sings earlier in the song. It’s like she’s giving us a peek through her own personal telescope that casts every heavenly body in an extra warm glow.
While lyrics and instrumentals undoubtedly play a starring role in The Moon and Stars, the overall mood of the music is often more easily placed than the sound elements themselves. June seems to recognize this, as well: She wraps up the album with a heavenly tune called “Home Inside,” in which she stacks layers of her own voice on top of one another and solemn marching band drums, followed by “Starlight Ethereal Silence,” which sounds just like its title. The 90 seconds of singing birds and windchimes give the listener a moment to sit with what they’ve just heard, like savasana at the end of an awakening yoga class.
It may be called The Moon and Stars, but June’s latest showing for Fantasy Records is music to consume while perched by a window fragmented with sunbeams. Just the sound of June’s voice is enough to defrost any lingering icy memories of a cruel winter. She uses the album as a chance to wield hope and joy as tools in the battle of persistence. Whether you need a short respite from your own reality or a reason to believe this mortal plane isn’t so bad after all, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers is just the ticket. And the timing couldn’t be better.
Ellen Johnson is a former Paste music editor and forever pop culture enthusiast. Presently, she’s a copy editor, freelance writer and aspiring marathoner. You can find her tweeting about all the things on Twitter @ellen_a_johnson and re-watching Little Women on Letterboxd.