I love the timeless, deep-hearted quality of the music here, as well as Holland’s fetchingly textured voice. Starting simply, with the acoustic guitar up front, the song picks up depth and punch when the drums and electric guitar kick in in full force, after about a minute. The electric guitarist is the masterly Marc Ribot, who plays with great invention and yet, somehow, without drawing any attention to himself. I suggest going back and listening to the song one time with the specific intention of focusing only on Ribot’s playing–not just his solo at around 1:55 but from beginning to end (and yes he actually is playing from almost the beginning, even as the acoustic guitar seems onstage alone). Although a wonderful experimental guitarist on his own, I find him particularly effective in this sort of ensemble work, in the context of a traditional-sounding song.
Beyond Ribot, one concrete element that adds to “Palmyra”‘s mysterious appeal, to my ears, is how Holland shifts the melody in the verse on and then off the first beat of the measure. You can hear this clearly at the beginning: the first two lines (beginning with “Only a few…” and “My little heart…”) are sung starting on the first beat of the measure; the next lines (starting with “You could tell…”) are sung beginning around the third beat of the measure, which creates more space between lines as well. The feel of the song settles into something deeper and yearnier, somehow, in the shift. And yet she does not do this the second time the verse comes around, which is the first time we hear it in the fuller band mode–she shifts the shift, as it were. It returns for the third verse. I have no idea precisely why but I do believe this sort of subliminal complexity enriches the listening experience. In other words: good song.