Although a solo artist, Jess Williamson’s latest album, Heart Song, was recorded with a band, and producer Erik Wofford, at Cacophony Studios in Austin, Texas.
Loosely speaking Heart Song is a collection of minimal American folk songs, touching on the Appalachian-tinged alt-country of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, the urgent acoustic tones of Josh T. Pearson and the open-hearted, honest songwriting of Sharon Van Etten. The instrumental pallete is fairly minimal; fluttering acoustics, piercing slides and gentle percussive tones, all serving as decoration around Jess’ stunning vocal, imagine Meg Baird’s tone with Angel Olsen’s inflections and you won’t be too far off.
Jess is a Texan by birth, and is now based out of Austin. It seems like only yesterday we were talking about Austin, probably because it was. Nonetheless there’s plenty of other things we can tell you about Austin! The 14th biggest city in the United States, Austin has a population of nearly 800,000 people. Austin is also the fastest growing and safest city in the states, and has the largest urban bat population in North America with up to 1.5million of the winged creatures. Austin also hosts an event to celebrate Eeyore’s birthday every year, although we’re not entirely sure how they know when that is. As well as all its famous musical offspring, Austin has also been home to people as varied as Lance Armstrong, Sandra Bullock and South African author, J. M. Coetzee.
Jess’ earliest release was the 2011 EP, Medicine Wheel/Death Songs. Although there was a step up in intensity with 2014’s album, Native State, which came out through Jess’ own Brutal Honest label. Jess’ new album Heart Song is out this Friday, again via Brutal Honest.
If Jess’ last album, Native State, was a song about the joys of returning home, Heart Song is about the dangers of becoming too comfortable. With a pain staking honesty, Jess dissects the home comforts, be that relationships or families, and concludes that sometimes you’ve got to tear apart the fabric of your life and find a way to start again. It’s there in the opening track, Say It (“my fingertips are strangers on your face”), it’s there in recent single, See You In A Dream (“tell me the secret of peace between us”) and it’s certainly there in the stunning title track, Heart Song, a track so bruised and emotive it has Jess questioning if she can ever achieve true freedom.
Heart Song is that rare beast: an album that is both lyrically powerful and musically sublime. The subtle musical shifts throughout are fabulous; the way the tracks drift from minimal acoustic strums, to trembling, powerful full band ensembles is impressive. It’s a record that never lurches, just swells and contracts with a natural, organic sense of movement. The guitar playing is superb, the fluttering Josh Pearson like acoustics of Snake Song, the Tom Waits-like macabre, bar-room jazz of Say It, or the lone electric of White Bed, that seems to somehow, almost absent-mindedly, stumble onto a beautiful melody.
While some songwriters are born raconteurs, story-tellers and spinners of yarn, Jess seems to cut straight to a tune’s emotional core. Take the excellent Last Word, while she gives us details of her life, “I’ve been waking up with whisky in my coffee cup and I’ve been working on finding work, I think Austin is my problem, this town just ain’t grown up enough”, the actual process of living seems to be secondary to the inner-workings of her mind. Her mind seems to almost exist separately from her actions, as she courts a lover, who even from the lyrics of this song seems like an entirely bad idea.
You could pick out any track as a highlight, the stunning Devil’s Girl, which recalls Laura Marling’s more downbeat material, see’s Jess paint herself as the mouthpiece on Earth for some lost, unidentified person, “when you’re gone, like out of this world gone, in all my songs I was speaking for you.” The way Say It and Heart Song go from beautiful minimalism into painful, beautiful, chaotic noise, is so brilliantly clever. While recent single, See You In A Dream, is just the finest country-rock song you’ll hear this year, featuring moody, twanging guitar, Be My Baby like drum beats and a vocal performance entirely laced with classical forlorn heartache, it’s just wonderful.
With honesty that cuts to the bone and the gentle, largely acoustic back drop, it will just be too fragile for some. That said it would be a shame, even a travesty if this record didn’t get the attention it so richly deserves, it’s magnificent.
Heart Song is out November 4th via Brutal Honest.