Photo: Duende Vision
The 21-second cello passage that serves as the on-ramp to Anana Kaye and the late David Olney’s album Whispers and Sighs signals that dark themes lie ahead. The lush, 13-track record explores death, longing, isolation, regret and closure. Yet Kaye and Olney don’t leave listeners to languish in despair. They and their co-writers, Irakli Gabriel and John Hadley, weave tendrils of optimism throughout — even as many of the songs’ characters search for what they are doomed never to find. This achievement elevates the ambitious album into what is arguably Olney’s best work.
“Working with David and [co-writer Hadley] was a liberating experience,” Kaye tells the Scene. “David was a kindred spirit. We just connected. And John is such a classic songwriter in the truest sense, and he writes beautiful melodies and lyrics. David, Irakli and I tend to be dark with our lyrics, then John would add something that would bring balance to the songs.”
Olney, a pillar of Nashville’s songwriting community for decades, died onstage in early 2020 at age 71. As much as this album is a farewell to Olney, to many listeners it will also be an introduction to Kaye, a 26-year-old singer-songwriter from the Eastern European country of Georgia. Her emergence as an insightful songwriter and powerhouse vocalist is among the many surprises embedded within Whispers and Sighs. Other surprises include horns, Olney rapping and a bona fide pop song called “Last Days of Rome” — an outlier among the bulk of Olney’s story songs.
Kaye’s performance instills passion throughout Whispers and Sighs, delivering multifaceted depth to a layered, lovely and poignant coda to Olney’s catalog while expanding her reputation as a creative force. Kaye and Gabriel, who are married, have lived in Nashville since 2017. She says her upbringing during a time of extreme political turmoil informs her songwriting.
“I was born in 1994, and the Soviet Union had just collapsed,” Kaye says. “There was a lot of personal loss and trauma in my family. I had the realization very young of what death meant. You can’t cover that up with glitter. That’s why I’ve always approached songs that explore sorrow. And through that process, that’s really only how you can find hope.”
Kaye and Gabriel were listening to mixes in the studio with producer Brett Ryan Stewart when Stewart received a text about Olney’s death. According to Gabriel, Olney himself had only gotten to listen to the album in its entirety hours before he died.
“Fuck yeah, this is good,” Gabriel recalls Olney saying. “I’m as proud of it as anything I’ve done.”
Several of the lyrics Olney sings on Whispers and Sighs take on an aura of foresight, especially in light of his passing. “My Favorite Goodbye” is poignant in its starkness: “She didn’t say a word / She just walked away / It’s always been my favorite goodbye.” But there’s a romantic counterbalance at the end of the song that speaks to what outlasts even our time on Earth: “Time takes everything but love.”
“The World We Used to Know” is told from the perspective of a soldier writing a letter home. Musically, it shifts between the minor-key depictions of the grim reality in the theater of war and a hopeful, major-key waltz that underscores the soldier imagining flying over the mountains to be with his love.
“There’s no hope, and the song doesn’t end on a happy note at all,” Kaye says. “It’s dark, but it also conveys that there’s always some form of light, even in the hardness of the darkness.”
Therein lies much of the brilliance of Olney, Kaye, Gabriel and Hadley’s collaboration. The narrative counterbalance builds tension while also soothing it. The centerpiece of the album, however, is a full-tilt pop song from the group. “Last Days of Rome” opens with a guitar riff that sounds as if it could have fallen from Keith Richards’ Telecaster. Horns blare and swing like a Motown staple, perhaps filtered through the lens of Richards’ late pal Bobby Keys. The song contains a future-looking passage written in 2018 that could just as easily speak to President Trump mugging with a Bible in front of a church in 2020. “Wrapped in a flag, holy book in his hand / The leader stands on his pedestal,” Kaye sings. “We came here for / diamonds / And the golden fleece / But if they ask, it’s all about peace.”
“This album was never meant to be a farewell,” says Kaye. “But after what happened last year, it’s hard not to see it that way.”