Sunday, July 14, 2024

Cassandra Jenkins: My Light, My Destroyer review | Alexis Petridis’s album of the week

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It’s fair to say that Cassandra Jenkins did not expect to achieve a minor commercial breakthrough with her 2021 album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. A set of songs mired in grief, some of it occasioned by the suicide of songwriter and Silver Jews frontman David Berman, with whom Jenkins was set to tour as part of his band Purple Mountains, Jenkins apparently wasn’t sure if she wanted to release the album. When she did, it ended up on a succession of year-end best-of lists and occasioned a deal with Dead Oceans, a sub-label of Secretly Canadian, the US indie that has seen a succession of its female artists, including Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers and Faye Webster, transcend the usual audience for thoughtful indie singer-songwriters to gain a foothold on TikTok.

The artwork for My Light, My Destroyer.

It’s not inconceivable that something similar could happen to Jenkins. Her music is noticeably more abstract than that of the others – five of My Light, My Destroyer’s tracks are instrumentals, ranging from a sedate piece for violin and cello to jazzy, improvised brass topped with a recording of Jenkins discussing astronomy with her mum. However, it shares an emotional blend of warmth and melancholy and a certain small-hours intimacy – even the Pixies-esque distorted guitars of Petco are smoothed out by the whispery tone of her vocals and the sweetness of its melody. It certainly doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to picture the calm, synthesised and hushed pop chorus of Only One playing in the background of umpteen TikTok contributions.

But judging by her recent interviews, the prospect of wider exposure weighed heavy on Jenkins during the album’s making. She told one US newspaper that coming up with songs for it felt like “fulfilling an assignment and that felt terrible”. At one juncture, she took to dumping unfinished material on a SoundCloud page titled Valley of Despair. Clearly, she overcame her issues, but there seems something telling about the fact that the album opens with a song about trying to maintain a sense of agency during an overwhelming emotional event – “don’t mistake my breaking open for broken” – and, indeed, that the overriding lyrical theme is loneliness.

Cassandra Jenkins: Delphinium Blue – video

On Petco, Jenkins visits a pet shop and stares “into the sideways glance of a lizard” in an attempt to feel “less alone”. On Delphinum Blue, the protagonist’s job in a flower shop is defined by someone else’s absence: “I sweep the floors but I’m talking to you / I see your eyes in the delphinium too.” You might expect Jenkins to be an inveterate road hog: as well as her own gigs, she’s performed as a backing musician with the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, and spent her teenage years travelling between folk festivals with her parents’ band. But here, touring is expressed purely in terms of impermanence and isolation: “The bus left this morning, they took my name off the marquee / How long can I stare at the ceiling before it kills me?” Everything from a dream about sharing expensive strawberries with a lover on the track Omakase to William Shatner’s trip into space on board Jeff Bezos’s commercial launch craft has her ruminating on solitude: “It’s a thin line over the planet / Just a thin line between us and nothingness,” she sings on Aurora, IL, paraphrasing the Star Trek actor’s explanation of the overview effect on his return to Earth.

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But for an album so thick with sadness and seclusion, My Light, My Destroyer is remarkably easy listening. The difficulties of its gestation notwithstanding, there’s ease and confidence about the finished product, slipping between genres with apparent effortlessness. In the first four tracks alone you go from the acoustic guitar-driven singer-songwriter styling of Devotion to distorted alt-rock on Clams Casino. There’s Delphinium Blue’s cavernous take on synth-y 80s progressive pop (the fretless bass and saxophone of the latter recalling both Destroyer’s Kaputt and Gayngs’ Relayted, two albums on which US indie luminaries made explicit their love of the Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout and Avalon-era Roxy Music) and then field recordings and abstraction on Shatner’s Theme. Elsewhere, there are diversions into everything from brass-cushioned 70s soft-rock and rhythms that patter surprisingly close to drum’n’bass, none of which seem to jar.

It helps that the arrangements are beautifully done – there’s a gorgeous moment at the end of Devotion where the lyrics turn momentarily optimistic and a swell of brass slowly builds behind them – and that Jenkins’ grasp of melody is so strong: Only One might be the obvious pop standout, but the sigh of Clams Casino’s chorus and Aurora, IL’s sweet sadness run it very close. In fact, sweet sadness is a description that fits My Light, My Destroyer as a whole. It’s doleful but beautiful, a brooding delight: whatever pains were staked in its making were clearly worth it.

This week Alexis listened to

Confidence Man – Break It Down (On the Bassline)
Off the back of a life-affirming Glastonbury set, two and half minutes of neon-bright acid house-infused pop.

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