Now That I Know You So Well: Julia Jacklin and the perils of proximity

Crushing

In his song “Right Moves,” Josh Ritter sings about two far-flung lovers, driven apart by what he calls “the comedy of distance” and “the tragedy of separation.” These are two helpful categories for understanding romantic plight, but the songs of Julia Jacklin call for a third one—call it the peril of proximity. On her bruised and thorny album Crushing, the Australian singer and songwriter picks apart intimacy’s inevitable complications. For her characters, love is an act of entanglement, requiring the surrender of privacy, autonomy, and control. They get their toes stepped on, their personal space violated, their sense of identity eroded. Jacklin’s songs—most of them set either just before or just after a breakup—are all about what real vulnerability costs, and about how hard it is to ever fully extricate yourself from love’s briar patch. But while Crushing unfolds against a backdrop of romantic wreckage, it’s not exactly right to say that the album is a document of heartbreak; it’s more like a chronicle of attempted reclamation.

Then again, reclaiming the self isn’t always easy. Take it from the woman in “Body,” which opens the album with a slow burn and the dreadful sense of inevitability. The woman has just broken up with her boyfriend, and panics to remember that he has a compromising photo of her—something he could use to shame her. “Well, it’s just my life/ and it’s just my body,” Jacklin sighs, but the ominous implication is that these things aren’t completely hers at all, and perhaps never will be again; she’s given a piece of herself away and can’t take it back. But if familiarity makes it tough to sever ties, it can also make it painful to stay. “Don’t know how to keep loving you/ Now that I know you so well,” Jacklin sings later in the album. She’s distressed by a romance that’s settled into routine, and while disentanglement can seem wrenching, devotion may be harder still.

On Crushing, love isn’t just a matter of emotions but of flesh and bone and physical space. Sometimes, that’s burdensome. In “Head Alone,” Jacklin sings about wanting to be loved in ways that aren’t just carnal, to have a reprieve from infatuation’s fumbling hands; “I don’t wanna be touched all the time,” she sings. “I raised my body up to be mine.” That word body comes up repeatedly—11 times in the first two songs, Lindsay Zoladz calculates—and more often than not it represents the tension between ceding your autonomy to someone else and claiming ownership of something that’s yours alone. The woman in “Pressure to Party” is urged to hit the club and dance her broken heart away, but she’s not ready; she doesn’t have her “body back,” she says, an alien in her own skin. That same phrase shows up elsewhere, when Jacklin sings that she’s “headed to the city to get her body back,” as if embarking on a holy pilgrimage to rediscover her independent, unentangled self.

Given the incarnational slant of Jacklin’s writing, it’s only fitting that the sound of Crushing is delicate, tactile, physical. Working with producer Burke Reid, she lends these songs clarity and warmth, to the point where you can hear the piano bench creaking in the whispered reverie of “When the Family Flies In,” and the rustling hum of acoustic guitar strings in “Convention.” A few songs work up a rickety rock and roll energy: “Pressure to Party” jangles and pulses with the DIY clatter of 80s college rock, while “Head Alone” chimes and surges like something Lucy Dacus and her boygenius troupe might conceive. “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” the album’s simmering fulcrum, sticks to the low embers of the blues, complete with a grinding electric guitar solo. Though Jacklin’s songs occasionally reach brisk tempos, most unfold slowly and steadily. This, too, feels fitting: These songs bear witness to how easily hearts and lives and bodies can be damaged, and Jacklin’s deliberateness suggests that she knows how important it is to handle delicate things with care.

Of course, even the most fastidious lovers can find their efforts come to ruin, but another parallel between Jacklin and Dacus is that they both seem less interested in cataloging heartbreak then in considering post-heartbreak narratives. “I’m not a good woman when you’re around,” says the character in “Body,” seizing romantic dissolution as a chance to regain her true identity.  Yet in “Good Guy,” Jacklin gives voice to the corruptor: “I don’t care for the truth when I’m lonely,” she admits, and then assures her partner that he’s “still a good guy,” no matter the compromised circumstances of their union. She’s granting him permission to tell a certain story about himself, no matter how much or how little his actions bear it out. Entering into love’s entanglement means allowing yourself to be changed, your sense of self blurred—which means extrication can offer a blank slate. “Who will I be, now that you’re no longer next to me?” Jacklin wonders in “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” as if hitting her own reset button following a romantic dead end. But the blank slate gives and it takes away. In the haunted closer, “Comfort,” Jacklin hopes the best for an ex-paramour, and wishes she could tell him everything’s going to be okay. “But that’s what you get,” she says to herself. “You can’t be the one to hold him when you were the one who left.” Now unentangled, she can have her body and her self back; she can be who she wants to be. But at what cost?

Through the Gateway: Julian Lage goes exploring

lovehurts

Jazz enthusiasts, like any other religious converts, can often tell you the exact moment they were radicalized. Perhaps it was through early exposure to Kind of Blue; a chance encounter with Time Out; even a soul-shaking rendezvous with Art Blakey’s Moanin’. It’s no knock against guitarist Julian Lage’s crackling, exploratory album Love Hurts to say that it will probably never reach such rarified stature as those venerated classics, yet one of its great joys is the totally reasonable notion that it could be that kind of album for someone—a gateway drug, a point of entry. That’s a distinction it reaches through infectious energy and careful equilibrium. Love Hurts is deep and wide enough that it nobly and effectively evinces the richness of the jazz tradition, yet it’s also tight, tuneful, and seldom demanding—an album that welcomes even the uninitiated with pleasures both visceral and intellectual.

That’s not the only sense in which you could call it a gateway album; it’s a gateway for Lage himself, a wanderer and a roamer for whom improvisational music is the launchpad, not the final destination. On Love Hurts, he uses the jazz tradition as a portal, a trailhead for further explorations; the final chapter in a loose trilogy of guitar trio albums, it codifies his porous, catholic take on the form, one that subsumes the brash rumble of embryonic rock and roll, the clean lines and evocative formalism of the Great American Songbook, and the rustic solitude of folk music. This is the pluckiest entry in a trifecta that also includes the well-regarded Arclight and Modern Lore, and its restlessness may be attributable both to a change of venue and of personnel. Lage cut this set at The Loft—the Chicago studio that’s gestated many a Wilco and Jeff Tweedy joint—and his guitar heroics are anchored by the cool fretwork of bassist Jorge Roeder and the mighty wallop of Bad Plus drummer Dave King. Both share Lage’s zeal for discovery, and King in particular stands unequalled for his complement of nimble swing and blunt-force power. Their natural rapport generates first-take immediacy; indeed, Love Hurts was recorded live in just a day and a half.

The trio’s combustible chemistry is the rocket fuel for these hungry performances. A razor-sharp take on Ornette Coleman’s “Tomorrow is the Question” trades the original’s brassy buoyancy for cutthroat thrills—a high-speed chase down a tightrope wire. More raucous still is a haywire reading of Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” which sounds like the whole band’s tumbling down a spiral staircase, Lage shredding his way to the bottom and King’s snap crackle and pop illuminating every step along the way. These intuitive experiments in locomotion provide the album with plenty of flash, but Lage also knows when to lay back and let the melodies speak for themselves. A former child prodigy, he learned a long time ago that pure technique only carries you so far, and he brings a hymn-like austerity to the title cut, a song associated the likes of The Everly Brothers, Gram Parsons, and Emmylou Harris. Lage lingers over every note, as if probing for maximum anguish and melancholy, and the song finds its cognate in a smoky, album-closing version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” played with the same sparkling clarity. These songs capture the same vast frontier solitude you might here on an album by William Tyler.

They also point to Lage’s standing as a folklorist, a collector of American songs who is untroubled by genre or orthodoxy. He’s interested in songs with rich lineages, and to that end he also uncrumples the dog-eared standard “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” played with lilting romance and soft-shoe charm. His only writing credit is for a song called “In Circles,” a ghostly ballad that loops back on itself like a serpent eating its own tail. It’s an exercise in discovery, the band feeling their way through the parameters of this unvetted text, and it finds a companion in the album-opening “In Heaven”—a David Lynch fever dream with which Lage claims a certain level of obsession. As Lage unfolds the song’s elegiac melody, his clean guitar lines are caught in a cloud of static smudge—but then the song opens up into the ambling pace of Roeder’s bass, crisp cymbal pops from King, and smoldering blues wrung from Lage’s guitar. Like so much of Love Hurts, it feels like equipoise—familiar sounds enlivened with the thrill of shared discovery; as evocative as it is accessible.

Takes an Army Just to Bend Her: On the ever-changing and undefined Patty Griffin

patty

Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself. Coming 22 years into her recording career, it’s a choice that can’t help but feel consequential, raising the specter of candid autobiography, or at the very least some kind of Rosebud moment. The album’s mosaic of stories, fantasies, dreams, and confessions doesn’t exactly add up to a memoir, but it does offer a robust meditation on the nature of self— on identity as something that’s foisted on us by destiny, but also forged through the decisions we make. “No matter where I go/ I can’t escape who I am— or forget,” Griffin sings on “Where I Come From,” a song about how you can run away from home but you can never escape where you come from. The album is concerned with those parts of the self that can’t be evaded—hardships overcome, scars earned, consequences lived with. As U2 might put it, it’s an album about all that you can’t leave behind.

Griffin recently weathered a hardship of her own: She survived cancer to make this album, something that’s never mentioned directly but brings focus to these ruminations on where she’s been and what she’s become. The cloud-bursting piano reverie “Luminous Places” is her moment of Zen: reflecting on a life devoted to song, Griffin is thankful for all the long highways she’s traversed, even as she knows her fate is to become “just another voice in the wind.” Considerably feistier is “Hourglass,” where a punch-drunk brass band punctuates Griffin’s reflections on immortality (“the hourglass never really runs out of sand/ you get to the end and you just turn it upside down again”). And over the stately churn of “River,” she hymns an ancient and mysterious reservoir of feminine strength: “She’s been left for dead a million times/ Keeps coming home, arms open wide/ Ever-changing and undefined.” She could be singing about any or every woman, but there’s comfort in thinking she’s singing about herself, marveling at a resilience she never realized she had in her.

There’s another way in which it feels right for this album to be self-titled: With quiet confidence, it consolidates all the strengths Griffin’s developed as a record-maker. She cut the album in her Austin residence with a small cohort of collaborators—producer Craig Ross, guitarist David Pulkingham, noted harmonist Robert Plant— and though it never strays from its homemade intimacy, it has the feel of a travelogue, an encapsulation of her journey to date. You can hear some of the rawness of her Living with Ghosts era on “River” and “Where I Come From,” two songs that lean into the rustle of acoustic guitar strings and the grain in the singer’s voice. But these songs aren’t retreads so much as refinements: “River” courses and swells through an orchestral undertow learned from Nick Drake albums, while the galloping “Where I Come From” is visited by a spectral choir, haunting Griffin’s thoughts in wordless solidarity. Griffin’s been at this long enough that she knows how much strength there is in doing a lot with a little, and the record’s most atmospheric effects are achieved through simplicity: “Bluebeard” is heavy with ominous storm clouds, conjured with nothing more than the drone and hum of acoustic guitar strumming, while “The Wheel” is a loping blues so limber and live-in, it sounds like it’s caked in Delta mud. There is evocative scene-setting throughout the album, nodding back to the porous Americana of Impossible Dream and Children Running Through: A high-and-lonesome Spanish guitar makes “Mama’s Worried” sound like it was recorded in the same border town where Willie Nelson made Teatro, and “Hourglass” lurches and tips like it’s wobbling down Bourbon Street.

The women in Griffin’s stories grapple with a world that’s vast and capricious, and it’s often symbolized here by nature itself. Rivers flow through these songs, and on “Hourglass,” they represent all the things Griffin’s protagonist is taught to fear. She doesn’t buy in: “I knew all along that that just wasn’t me/ I was swimming in the river with ghosts and debris.” Of course, Griffin has made a career out of diving headlong into the treacherous ebb of memory, but her courage is offset with moments of uncertainty. In the ghostly trance of “What Now,” our narrator seeks counsel and direction from the sea itself, and is met with roaring indifference. But like the preeminent naturalist Neko Case, Griffin seems to favor the idea that the natural world sides with the vulnerable and the oppressed. In the ghastly murder ballad “Bluebeard,” the protagonist takes up with a bloodthirsty brute; when she glimpses the dark abattoir of his heart she speaks up and nearly pays the price, but the ocean itself comes to her rescue, swallowing the evildoer whole. She’s a “maiden no more,” Griffin wryly observes, baptized by fire into a whole new identity.

But not many of the women on Patty Griffin have natural forces come to their aid; most are left to make the most of whatever hand they’re dealt. On several songs, dire situations are forced on them by men, who exist on this album mostly to cause trouble. There’s Bluebeard, of course, but also an unnamed lothario in “What I Remember,” who sweeps our heroine off her feet but then puts something in her drink. Griffin plays it like a tattered page from the Great American Songbook, and narrates the woman’s bleary recollections piece by painful piece. (“Here’s what I remember/ it really was that tender.”) And for the working-class mother in “Mama’s Worried,” men are just the beginning of her troubles; her husband has disappeared, leaving her with bills to pay and mouths to feed. She bears her burden with stoicism and hopes no one sees how much she’s hurting, but her daughter quietly takes it all in. Like Over the Rhine, Griffin reminds us that nothing goes unseen.

These characters are pressed but not crushed, oppressed but not despairing, and the album doesn’t linger on their circumstances so much as it highlights what they make of them. Like Griffin’s titular “River,” each woman here carves a “crooked line,” one equally informed by choice and destiny, and most have epiphanies of their true mettle. (“Takes an army just to bend her,” goes one awestruck line.) The subtlest and most stirring epiphany comes from the narrator in “Had a Good Reason”—a professional singer who, years after the fact, is still wrestling with maternal abandonment. “I used to think it might be who I am,” she admits. “Maybe who I am wasn’t right.” But now she knows better—and though she may still trace her scars, she knows they’re just part of who she is, and who she’s still becoming.