Jess Williamson is a native of Texas, who’s inspired by that state’s visceral desert landscape. Her songs are extraordinarily moody, anguished creations whose ominous demeanour stalks the instrumental soundscape that they travel through. She performs all her own material with an intimacy that’s often quite scary and always delicately involving. Jess’s debut album was by all accounts a minimalist masterwork, whose spare textures have, we’re told, been rethought for its two-years-on followup Heart Song, an altogether tougher and more confident product that nevertheless exhibits an intense inner vulnerability. It was recorded directly to tape in Austin, Texas, with the help of her band. Its lyrics “question the structures of support inherent in the comforts of home,” through the outward expansion into the surrounding landscape.
Say It, the opening track of Heart Song, is a significantly uneasy six-minute drama whose almost unbearable electric tension breaks like a thunderstorm midway through yet without clearing or freshening the surrounding air. Its groove is constructed around a menacing electric guitar riff that rumbles and growls like the thunder, mirroring Jess’s own vocal delivery. The desperation of that track is not relieved on its successor, White Bed, despite the apparent reassurance its lyrics betoken.
The grinding, crashing metal returns to haunt the title track, an even more desperate questioning of soul and purpose – out of which there seems nowhere to go but down to the earth, along which crawls and slithers the glistening Snake Song, a curiously comforting expression of the nature of fear that’s almost too artfully-stricken and holds a powerful, illogical fascination. See You In A Dream is the album’s most immediately beautiful track, a kind of spooky country-Americana piece refracted through a vertiginous prism full of weird colours and overtones; it’s followed by the languid, supine Last Word, whose chiming guitars have abandoned grunge for the canyon floor, which stretches out before us for a yawning 7½ minutes, and almost loses its own momentum before regenerating its thought-processes. The disc’s final track, Devil’s Girl, brings the closest focus, with its resolutely inward meditation on her relationship with “strangers with stakes in the same crisis.” The album’s journey has been a harrowing one, and the sense of weary and restless repose we reach with this final plaintive and painful, yet ostensibly restorative vox-and-guitar utterance is in the end quite uncomfortable.
It’s hard to measure the impact of Jess’s writing per se, so strong is her presence and her music. It’s not an easy listen, and you need to meet it more than halfway to gain its rewards. But either way, Heart Song is a very brave record to have made, and her record label Brutal Honest is surely aptly named.
Heart Song is out now via Brutal Honest
photo credit: Mikaylah Bowman