There’s something slightly unnerving about Sarah Jarosz, something a little spooky. I think I thought that her last album, Build Me Up From Bones, suffered from it; not because I object to spooky, but because I felt that ultimately the songs didn’t work quite hard enough to match her. Well, that problem if problem it was (and I liked Build Me Up From Bones quite a lot) has gone. This – Undercurrent – is terrific. Jarosz’s spare style – most of these sound as if they could have been recorded live; a third of the songs on the album are literally just her vocal and her own guitar – is matched by the character of the material.
What is always noticeable is her voice. You get the feeling that this prodigy (let’s still call her that even though she’s twenty-five now; everybody else does), this multi-instrumentalist, likes to use her voice as she would any other instrument; the arrangements are more democratic than most; the voice has its own line and it sticks to it. Only as it happens she has this incredibly distinctive voice. If it reminds me of anyone it’s Gillian Welch, but musically the two are so different that that’s an odd comparison. There’s a depth, a peculiar sexiness, a strength to Jarosz’s singing that, again, requires strong songs.
The opening song, ‘Early Morning Light’ is spare, and gorgeous, and spooky, and everything it ought to be, dealing as it does with a hopeless hopefulness – ‘I’ll move on down the line, thinkin’ I’ll make it better this time,’ she sings. The next, ‘Green Lights’ is a bit more fancy, and it took me a few listens to get the hang of it; I was put off at first by what sounded to me like some 1990s-style production, with over-blended harmonies. I don’t know. I like it much better now. I love the words. Check it out: ‘In all the corners of the universe that light could fall onto, I’m standing next to you.’ Poetry, innit.
‘House of Mercy’ is more Jarosz-y with its much rougher vocal harmonies, the backing vocal by Jedd Hughes sticking right out without apology. Here you feel what Jarosz can do with her voice, her unadorned voice; when she soars, even just for a second, she takes you with her; you go from weighed down by the bass, by the heat and the bad man in the song, to light as air. Just for a second. She’s telling him to get stuffed, not to ‘try to wear me down’; it’s meaty stuff. Why it’s called ‘House of Mercy’ I’m not sure (‘you’ll never get inside this house’), except that Jarosz seems to me to have strong cinematic instincts. Her songs are more like short films than short stories.
A few songs later – and they’re all worth talking about but I don’t want to tire you – there’s ‘Comin’ Undone’, which sounds like a cover in that it sounds like a song which has always been there. I think it’s about depression. She refers in painfully timely lines to feeling ‘useless’ when the ‘world’s full of bad news bearers, talkin’ heads talkin’ ‘bout terror’; but the song as a whole is more about a personal slump or a recurring series of them. ‘Everyday’s a war and it must be won. Whenever I feel like I’m comin’ undone, the song in my head keeps me marching on.’ It’s a super lively song, brave and brash, small but perfectly-formed. ‘I’m a lover but I’m also a fighter – the song in my head keeps me clappin’.’ You fucking go, Sarah.
‘Take Another Turn’ is a bit like Simon and Garfunkel, and I mean that in the best possible way. Old-school, sombre melodic folk. The word ‘spare’ keeps coming up, I know, and I can’t always bat it away. This really feels like it could be live, in the sense of Townes Van Zandt at the Old Quarter live, and reminds me of what it’s easy to forget about Jarosz who looks so self-effacing on her album covers and doesn’t talk all that much in public – her curiously magnetic presence when you see her perform live.
And then comes ‘Lost Dog’ which is the one which confounded me on first listen. I mean, surely it’s a metaphor, it couldn’t possibly be a serious, unsentimental song about a lost dog. Only I think it is. Maybe I’m being a fool but I like this position and I’m staying in it. And this is the one that sticks with you when the album ends, sticks in your head.
‘Take Me Back,’ again featuring Jedd Hughes on what’s almost a proper dual vocal, is terribly sad, with words again that fit our times too well – ‘Nothing is forever anymore’. The instruments are all over the place, spinning the vocal around (I can imagine a brilliant video to go with this song, if anyone’s interested in hiring me). ‘Still Life’ features the phrase ‘child of sin’ for the second time on this album. ‘Have I lost myself to lust, is there anybody I can trust’ – is this preoccupation with sin unusual in this day and age, or is it perfectly typical? I’m too old to know. The closer is ‘Jacqueline’ – surely Jackie Kennedy, in a ‘pillbox hat’ – I don’t know what she’s doing here but I’m comfortable with it.
This is modern music. I don’t just mean the actual music; her lyrics deal too much with the world, with sexuality, with being a young woman who may be in love but who still has no doubt that she’s the most important person in her own life – to be old-fashioned. It’s the tone, it’s the mood, which lend the feeling of a tradition, of history. Her music is completely American; it seems to me that the term Americana was coined for songs like these, performers like this. Sarah Jarosz’s album sits on the same ever-existent premise that holds up country music, and the blues too – that life is always hard. Even in the midst of joy we are in sorrow.