LABEL: BA DA BING
ALBUM IN A SENTENCE: A New York singer songwriter paints a gorgeous panoramic landscape of human connections with a palette of ambient folk.
An Overview On Phenomenal Nature, the new album by New York singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins is a brave album. It is a thoroughly, ravishingly beautiful album. It is an ocean. ‘Arkadelphia’ was your favourite song on Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud, or you have a fondness for the gentle playfulness of the second half of See You On The Other Side by Mercury Rev, An Overview On Phenomenal Nature could well become a lifetime companion.
But firstly, it a brave album, but not primarily because of the circumstances that surrounded the recording of the songs. Before the recording sessions, Cassandra Jenkins was supposed to go on tour with the Purple Mountains but the tour never happened due to the untimely death of band leader David Berman. This tragic event deeply affected Jenkins, left her ‘bruised or scraped or any kind of broken’, and the songs bear witness to her grief.
An Overview… is brave because it wrestles with how we are never truly permanent because our identities are formed in relationship to other people who ebb and flow. As Jenkins puts it on ‘Crosshairs’, ‘In your eyes, I see the panoply of the people inside of me.’ Even if we are as congruent as landscapes, we hold a constant flux of light and shade, growth and erosion, one moment covered by tourists and the next in stillness with those who have walked our terrain for the longest time.
This is uncomfortable because it pushes against a long tradition of American thought where the transcendent power of nature is imagined to entwine around a macho rugged individualism. The security guard at the Mrinalini Mukhergee exhibition in ‘Hard Drive’ explains how sculpture is not just formed from penetration. What we construct and place into an environment are not the whole story. The environment shapes our constructions at least as much as we do. As people, our primary environments are human relations; there are no self-made, self-defined people.
It is a rare, wise voice that comes back from the woods telling how they are constructed in relation to others. Some may consider it a modern sin to let someone else live rent free inside your head. But we all do this, and we have to, because this is how we are formed. I admire how Cassandra Jenkins paints the ways that happens through her lyrics.
I admire the narrative progression of ‘New Bikini’ where a friend’s mother’s advice morphs into friend’s advice which becomes Jenkins’ prescription for another struggling friend. ‘Hard drive’ weaves a braid of chance meetings and connections into a greater, healing moment. We are even invited playfully to consider the ways we are shaped by cultural icons, like Michaelangelo, the President of the USA or Hailey Gates. Jenkins doesn’t flinch in describing the pain and dislocation that happens when people who were involved in forming us leave. To David Berman, Jenkins sings that ‘You’re gone, you’re everywhere.’ In another moment, she compares herself to ‘a three legged dog,’ missing something or someone fundamental.
The album finishes with a seven minute instrumental called ‘The Ramble’, replete with field recordings of birdsong, children and a saxophone that lifts as a thermal holds a hawk. Beyond being a lung-full of spring in a weary world, and a testament to the breadth of Cassandra Jenkin’s artistic capabilities, this track encapsulates An Overview… The buzzy shimmer of chords, the rising and fleeting dynamics of ‘The Ramble’ reflect the momentary transcendent awareness we might gain when give ourselves permission to be present to the presence of landscape, moved as we walk. In these moments, we still carry those who shaped our internal landscapes, some by erosion, some by eruption, some by patient investment in our soil, some by absence. An Overview on Phenomenal Nature meditates deeply on all this. There will not be many albums more spectacularly beautiful in 2021, there will be even fewer that are wiser or braver.