Julia Jacklin brings the hammer down on album number two
Artist: Julia Jacklin
Recording: Crushing Label: Polyvinyl
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
To the west of Sydney lie the Blue Mountains, a vast and rugged range tinged a distinctive shade of blue, perhaps by the overgrowth of eucalyptus trees.
For a time, they were seen by English colonists as insurmountable, a natural barrier to thousands of acres that could be used for farms to feed the city, which was in danger of collapsing due to lack of food. For 25 years they tried to cross, eventually finding a way thanks to the explorers known as the “Dauntless Three” – which, come to think of it, is a pretty good name for an indie-rock trio. The path became a road, built by convicts, naturally, of whom a Lt. Col. Mundy noted in 1846: “We passed several lots of these wretched creatures – England’s galley-slaves, clanking along with straddling gait and hopeless hang-dog looks to their allotted labours, escorted by soldiers; or working with pick and spade, crowbar and wedge on the stubborn rocks – working with mule-like slowness and sulkiness, forced to work by fear of the lash.”
These hopeless hangdogs (another band name?) forged a connection that not only saved Sydney but also paved the way for settlement in the Blue Mountains, which is where, 150 years later, singer and songwriter Julia Jacklin was raised by two school teachers. Maybe there’s something in being a descendent of what is likely sturdy stock that gives Jacklin’s music its inherent strength. That’s one of the things that immediately struck me when I dropped the virtual needle on “Pool Party,” the first song on her 2016 debut album, Don’t Let The Kids Win.
With a waltz rhythm straight out of Springfield High’s Senior Prom, Class Of 1958, the slight quaver in her voice contrasting the rock-solid structure of the song, she already had my attention even before hitting the indelible chorus, “And I want to give you all of my love,” which she sings with a slight formality before leaping poetically to “But I watched you sink as they swam above/You are the land and I am the dove/My heart is heavy when you’re high/So, for me, why won’t you try?” Clearly this was an artist capable of lyrical complexity, made even more effective by the low key jangle of the music. The whole album was just as captivating, finding a sweet spot between indie-rock and folk that was as canny as the brilliantly executed visual image Jacklin created for herself, all short skirts, bright colors, blonde hair and femme-fatale lipstick.
Don’t Let The Kids Win garnered a lot of well-deserved attention and launched Jacklin around the world on tour. Last year, she took a pause from her solo career to restart an old band of hers called Phantastic Ferniture, conspiring a self-titled album that occasionally felt too dashed off, while also giving her license to let loose the reins on her honeyed soprano and have a little more fun. It was good prep for her second album proper, Crushing, which came out on February 22nd and puts her in the highest echelons of her contemporaries.
Like many young artists who have found love and loss along with success and a wider audience, Jacklin has looked to these new experiences for subject matter. However, rather than milking the new scars on her heart for pity or voyeur-baiting over-share, she has used the alchemy of her craft to turn vulnerability into a strength and sorrow into golden melodies.
Intriguingly, more than one song on Crushing refers to her physical being, such as the opening song “Body,” which depicts the all too common scenario of someone using a compromising photo as leverage in a relationship. The grave, mid-tempo song ends with the haunting refrain, “I guess it’s just my life/And it’s just my body.” The tempo is up on the next song, “Head Alone,” but Jacklin’s narrator is still trying to regain control after a confining relationship: “I don’t want to be touched all the time,” she sings, “I raised my body up to be mine.” As the guitars swell, she ends the song with a couplet worthy of Elvis Costello: “So I’ll say it ’til he understands/You can love somebody without using your hands.”
“Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” is that rare song that explores the difficult transition from infatuation to a long-term relationship, a journey that too often ends in a breakup. Over-familiarity once again focuses on the physical (“But you know my body now and I know yours”) and physical self-loathing: “What if I cleaned up?/What if I worked on my skin?/I could scrub until I am red, hot, weak and thin.” The melody of the chorus could come out of a Tammy Wynette song and Jacklin’s restraint is yet another sign of her gifts as a singer.
The rest of the album looks at relationships of all kinds and always from a fresh angle. “Good Guy” puts the narrator in the driver’s seat of a one-night stand (“Tell me I’m the love of your life/Just for a night”) while “Turn Me Down” uses the nerve-wracking experience of being a student driver as a metaphor for a rocky romance.
The mournful centerpiece of the album, however, is “When The Family Flies In,” which may deal with the death of a friend, as hinted at in the verse “Oh, the last thing that I sent to you/Was an irrelevant music video/And I’ll always wonder if you ever watched it/
Thought you had longer to go.” How many times as a Facebook “Memory” reminded you of the devastating banality of your final interaction with a friend gone too soon? Too many times, but I’ve never heard it sung back to me so gorgeously.
There are no unnecessary bells and whistles on Julia Jacklin’s album two, just the pure talent of someone with the musical tools to present an original view of the world in a fashion that keeps you listening, leaning into all the feelings she so beautifully evokes. Who knows what mountains she had to climb, what “stubborn rocks” she had to shatter, to arrive at this pinnacle of artistry? No matter: on Crushing one of Australia’s finest has shown us a clear path to her heart.