Won’t Ever Have Another Like Me: On the unflappable Jazzmeia Horn

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What does freedom sound like to you? Maybe it sounds something like “Searchin,’” one of several remarkable originals from the singer Jazzmeia Horn. The song begins with a countoff— the brusque snap of fingers, the rolling cadence of Horn’s one, two, one-two…!— and at first blush the sheer speed of it might strike you as a headfake. But she’s not pulling your leg: For just over three minutes, Horn leads her five-piece jazz combo barreling down a swaying highwire, maintaining poise and precision even at breakneck velocity. Clamorous drum fills and the insistent pulse of the upright bass remind you just how close to chaos the whole thing is, but Horn sustains model unflappability; she is clean and clear even as she alternates between crisply-enunciated lyrics and frenzied scatting. It’s singing of such athleticism, an Olympic medal feels just as appropriate as a Grammy; either way, she doesn’t break a sweat.

Not everything on Horn’s exemplary second album, Love and Liberation, is quite so throttling or intense, but much of it seems death-defying somehow; perhaps it has something to do with the unforgivingness of the form itself. Vocal jazz rises and falls by the technical skill and personal charm of the singer, and there’s no studio obfuscation or production jujitsu to temper the high stakes. The jazz singer’s somersaults and calisthenics, her feats of dramatization and interpretation, are done on a bare stage and in broad daylight, and if she stumbles it’s all caught on tape. Yet at a mere 28, Horn doesn’t only master an unyielding format; she finds within it ample space for formal invention and personal expression.

It’s tempting to assume she was born for this, but actually, the achievement of Love and Liberation isn’t quite as starcrossed as the singer’s name might indicate. Horn grew up in the gospel tradition, and her jazz destiny didn’t come knocking until she was in her late teens. An encounter with the Sarah Vaughan songbook sent her deep down the rabbit hole, and like many converts, Horn made up for lost time, immersing herself in the holy writ of singers like Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson. 

Horn boasts high-level technical proficiency, bringing to fruition all the lessons she learned from those vaunted singers of the past: bright countenance, regal bearing, command over the low embers of the blues as well as the cheerful effervescence of swing. And with Love and Liberation, she has assembled an album that largely plays by the idiom’s established rules: Mostly penned by Horn and recorded in warm, analog allure with her regular band, it’s an album that almost sounds like it could have been cut at the Village Vanguard in the late 60s, or released on any jazz imprint in the decades sense. There are no obvious feints toward modernity, no fourth-wall-breaking attempts to redefine what a vocal jazz album can be. Yet within a closed system, Horn asserts her right to rearrange the furniture, slap a new coat of paint on the walls, and declare the whole thing to be hers alone. What she exhibits is freedom, not anarchy, and it’s more impressive for how it flourishes in symbiosis with her chosen orthodoxy.

You can hear, for example, how she experiments with acceptable speed limits, not just with the blazing momentum of “Searchin’” but also with the metronome pulse of “Time.” Here, the singer pleads with a jittery paramour to slow his roll and give her some room to breath; Horn delivers her lyrics in soft spoken-word, as though leading zen meditation, and the band relaxes into a steady, clockwork gait. It’s not the album’s only track to suggest poetic recitation as a tool in the jazz singer’s toolbox: In “Only You,” a spoken a capella duet, Horn and her drummer Jamison Ross voice two lovers weaving in and out of sync with each other, their criss-crossing lines of dialogue suggestive that harmony isn’t supposed to look like uniformity. It’s a story of romance as two overlapping truths, and a word-picture of what it means to be both an individual and part of a unit.

Jazz is the mouth of the river here, but several songs follow its tributaries: “No More” slinks and growls, a down-and-dirty blues; “Still Tryin’” hollers like gospel but isn’t afraid to let its lyrics get bawdy. Meanwhile, a cover of “Green Eyes,” from Erykah Badu’s unimpeachable classic Mama’s Gun, loses the old-timey winks in the original and instead dives into straight-ahead jazz balladry, the singer surrendering to cascading piano lines from Victor Gould. These songs suggest the virtue in Horn’s roundabout path to jazz singing; a willingness to approach the form reverently while celebrating its porousness. 

It’s a fitting aesthetic for songs that assert personal autonomy and individuality amidst personal limitations and external constraints. Many of them voice steely, confident women who insist upon love and romance on their own terms; “No man owns me, I belong to God,” Horn declares on “No More,” pledging her autonomy but not forgetting where it came from. The skittering “Out the Window” reclaims the mean ol’ devil woman trope from the Delta blues; you can hear the simpering smile plastered to Horn’s face when she cheerfully announces that, if push comes to shove, she’s perfectly capable of discarding her decorum and civility real quick. In the ribald  yarn “Still Tryin,’” she’s waylaid by a man who’s only interested in one thing; she rebuffs him a few times and ultimately concedes a dance, but it’s pretty clear who’s in control of the situation (“not too fast, now, Johnny/ ‘cause you’re still trying to get in my pants”). The flinty “When I Say,” a preschooler’s power trip, suggests that there are lessons to be learned from kids who know what they want and voice it without inhibition. “You won’t ever have another like me, so I shouldn’t have to beg and plead,” the song goes, an endearing crisscross of pride and petulance.

Amidst these sharp originals there’s just one songbook standard; Horn sings “I Thought of You” to end the album, accompanied only by upright bass, her bubbly scatting as buoyant as a full horn section, her command of molasses drawls and gentle coos as expressive as an orchestra. She sings it because she can; standing on the shoulders of giants, she sounds like nobody but herself.

Big Complication: Taylor Swift learns to trust the process

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“How many days did I spend thinking/ ‘Bout how you did me wrong, wrong, wrong?” asks Taylor Swift at the beginning of her seventh album, Lover. The math, it turns out, isn’t especially flattering. It’s now been two years since she chided a bully for his “little games” and “tilted stage” in a song called “Look What You Made Me Do,” widely perceived to be a diss of Kanye West. And it’s been close to nine years since “Dear John,” a quietly brutal rejoinder to an older paramour (“don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?”), generally assumed to be John Mayer. But Swift’s question is probably a rhetorical one; long notorious for her clapbacks and her kiss-offs, the Swift of Lover sounds like she can scarcely believe the time and bandwidth she’s wasted nursing grievances.

The new album opener, a cheerfully antiseptic groove called “I Forgot That You Existed,” sounds like a hard reset following the cloistered defensiveness of Swift’s previous album, 2017’s complex and combative Reputation. Call it an exercise in charitable indifference; a moment of zen; an example of what Over the Rhine calls “healthy apathy.” “Lived in the shade you were throwing/ till all of my sunshine was gone,” Swift acknowledges, with what might as well be the sound of a stone being rolled away, a wind of goodwill blowing down doors and loosening shutters. The Taylor Swift you hear on Lover seems like she’s just been roused from a deep funk. No wonder she nearly titled this album Daylight.

Swift has become famous for the diaristic candor and emotional precision with which she writes about relationships, so to explain Lover as a study in the various iterations of romance, from the first flush of infatuation to the wreckage of a breakup, may seem nondescript. What’s most disruptive about these songs is the grace Swift extends to partners both current and past; and for that matter, the gentleness with which she handles her own shortcomings. The writer David Dark observes that “to love a person is to love a process,” and that could almost be Lover’s epigraph. “My heart’s been borrowed and yours has been blue,” she sings in the title song, twisting the imagery of picture-perfect matrimony into an acknowledgment that we all bring baggage into whatever covenants we enter. “All’s well that ends well to end up with you.” Multiple songs on Lover reference the rolling of dice, and Swift emanates a stoic risk tolerance; all of us are works in progress, these songs suggest, mostly just improvising as we go. Love demands that we take the rough with the smooth; that we be forebearing with one another, and patient with ourselves.

It’s a liberating paradigm shift, and you can hear it in the way this album sounds. Following the chilly, stainless-steel synths of 1989 and the dour monochrome of Reputation, Lover is an album that abounds with bright hues and convivial spirits. The difference seems entirely one of Swift’s countenance: She is once again working with studio architect Jack Antonoff, her closest collaborator since ditching any kind of live-band pretense after the brambly, transitional Red. But where the previous album felt pallid, this one glories in color, detail, and texture. Not since “Love Story” has she written anything as irrepressible as “Paper Rings,” sparkling pop-punk that borrows its sing-along chorus from Grease. In “I Think He Knows,” Swift nurses a secret crush, trying to tamp down her obvious buoyance even as the music stutters and stammers with goofy glee. At 18-songs-in-61 minutes, Lover is generous in its sprawl, and finds time enough for loose ends and experiments: “London Boy,” transatlantic romantic doggerel, is the kind of lark that gives the weightier material some breathing room; “It’s Nice to Have a Friend,” a wintry interlude, suggests Swift could have a second career in outsider folk. Of all the albums she’s made in her imperial pop era, this one is the most robust, the most accomplished, and the easiest to love.

You won’t hear its jovial spirit shine any brighter than on “ME!,” the divisive lead single that pairs Swift with Panic! At the Disco singer Brendon Urie. Here she commands the razzle-dazzle fanfare of a full marching band, leading call-and-response chants that invert a laundry list of personal shortcomings (“I know that I’m a handful, baby) into a celebration of individuality (“I’m the only one of me/ baby that’s the fun of me”). Its Mr. Rogers-ready messaging may seem childish, but it’s the kind of childishness that a lot of grown-ups would give anything to recapture, a Rosebud moment happily arriving while the recipient is still in her full vigor. It’s difficult to imagine the song on any previous Taylor Swift album; it’s as though she had to endure some dark years and some growing pains before she found the value in not taking herself too seriously; before she was confident enough to be ridiculous. 

This is the freest she has sounded in a long time, evident not just in the serenity of her lyrics and the vividness of the productions, but perhaps most crucially in the way she sings. That Swift contains multitudes is one of the album’s underlying points, and she literalizes it with a full spectrum of voices. “Cruel Summer” is a hot house of anguished desire, written with the very busy St. Vincent; Swift coos the choruses in operatic falsetto, them delivers the melodramatic punchline in a blood-curdling scream. In “Paper Rings,” she hams it up, channeling her shopworn petulance into defiant joy. And in “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” she croons with the earnestness of a born country singer, which of course she is.

It’s not the only moment on the album that suggests Swift maintains some affinity for country music, though it’s sufficiently convincing in its plainspoken heartache to make you hopeful for a hardscrabble Ashley Monroe cover. There’s also “Soon You’ll Get Better,” equal parts pep talk, intercessory prayer, and whispered confession, delivered by Swift at the bedside of her ailing mother. The Dixie Chicks show up to harmonize, and the song’s acoustic hush becomes another sharp color on Swift’s palette. Earlier in the album she admits that she’s the sum of all her “exes, fights, and flaws,” and you can almost hear these country incursions in similar terms: They are old flames for which she still carries a torch; essential strands in her DNA.

When Swift and Antonoff do return to the gauzy synths of Reputation, it’s with a distinctly different tone. “The Archer,” conjures the same soft ecstacy of Robyn’s Honey, a warm cocoon in which a peacetime Taylor no longer feels the need to explain or defend herself; instead she studies the heavy cost of her prior pugilism. “And I cut off my nose just to spite my face/ Then I hate my reflection for years and years.” It’s a revelation born of trauma; like the freedom you hear in “ME!,” the contrition of “The Archer” sounds like it could only have come through Reputation’s curtain of darkness.

What makes Swift’s humility especially commendable is Lover’s covert thesis: We are what do, and are known by the things we enshrine in our hearts and ratify with our actions. “I wanna be defined by the things that I love,” Swift intones in “Daylight,” the cloud-clearing album closer. The intentional hopefulness of this record is a conscious act of self-construction; a dream of being better by doing better. She makes the point even more explicitly in “False God,” a sax-caressed slow jam that posits embodied love as a mirror of spiritual devotion. “Your religion’s on your lips,” Swift whispers. Our orthodoxy is our orthopraxy.

Swift’s readiness to brave love’s rough and tumble is not naive. She’s written enough breakup songs. She knows covenants between two baggage-burdened people, works in progress, are always going to be fluid situations. Some of the record’s most affecting songs weigh the cost of entanglement with another human being. In “Cornelia Street,” Swift’s haunted by loss before the relationship even begins; “I’d never walk Cornelia Street again,” she vows of a potential rupture, her love so consuming that to lose it would tarnish everything in its orbit. In “Cruel Summer,” she writhes in recognition of an impossible romance: “I love you, ain’t that the worst thing you ever heard?” she croaks. The only promise love makes is that nobody emerges from it unchanged.

How daring is it, then, that two of the album’s key songs employ the language of weddings, suggesting the courage of commitment despite long odds? “I take this magnetic force of a man to be my lover,” Swift solemnly swoons in the title song, a candlelit romance that stands tall as one of her indisputable masterpieces. (Worth noting: It’s also a solo writing credit for Swift, her first in a while.) And in “Paper Rings,” she invites her man to jump into the car and race with her to the nearest altar, knowing full well they’ve both got baggage enough to fill the back seat and spill into the trunk. “I want your complications, too,” she assures him. Love is all or nothing; the best any of us can do is learn to trust the process.