A CLOSER LOOK AT SARAH JAFFE: Sarah Jaffe’s first record was a six-song masterpiece, titled “Even Born Again”. In 2008, I was so compelled by the quality of her work that I named it “my favorite diamond” and the year’s best album, despite being an EP. Yeah, it is that good. Jaffe mixes the best of many worlds. She writes beautiful Appalachia melodies with country storytelling sensibilities and a true singer-songwriter’s gift for creating new ways of expression. Jaffe’s lyrical world is a place where skies “are watercolor thin”, mirrors “gawk” and her kisses are “wicked”.
The songs on “Even Born Again” are devastating, compact, piercing, minimal, dark and stunningly accomplished for someone just beginning a career. “Black Hoax Lie” rises with tinkling guitar and lush strings timed to trail behind Jaffe’s voice. “Under” thunders like a Led Zeppelin song, with grizzled cello, like a soundtrack to some movie about a protagonist trying to outrun the devil. “Two Intangibles Can’t Be Had” curves its way around with ooohs and melodica/blow organ. The intense title track “Even Born Again” (right click, open file in new tab to hear song) memorably rushes forward on the back of a rough, slicing cello and Dylanesque, religiously-tinged lyrics about a martyr-love:
“I’m testament to old and new
There’s a thin red river runnin’ through
And my eyes were like these golden gates
Holdin’ testament to each love we face
The world over / The world begun
Let us prostitute our mouths for fun
Be easy with your words and truth
If I’m lost with god, I’m lost with you.”
After listening to the album once, I immediately put her in that rare category of modern songwriters gifted with a sense of the world’s pulse. Musicians like Jaffe don’t really write songs so much as act as conduits for universal emotions of love, despair, heartbreak and elation. The ebbs-and-flows of “Backwards/Forwards” work in balance with some of the most gorgeous harmonizing since The Be Good Tanyas — as Jaffe sings elegantly about feelings of confusion and frustration. She plays so gorgeously with lyrical diametric (back/forth, lost/found, sky/ground). The maturity of the songwriting rests in the comprehension that opposing forces are polar, but equally balanced and neutral like forces of nature:
“Wake up in a twilight / You’re a dream in black and blue
You in between the sky and the ground / And I can never get to you
A dirty compromise / A dirty split in the makin’
Well, that’s an abyss of a thought / Truly no one knows what they’ve got.
It’s always, back and forth / Backward, forwards
Maybe it’s all because I’m not made for it
Give me back my brain, let me sugarcoat it
All is well, when you’re lost and then you’re found.”
The third track “Adeline” is a simple guitar line and Jaffe’s delicate vocals:
“Guess I have to warn you, I might die for a day,
And I’ll think about it so much until it finds itself a grave.
‘Till we’ve argued every politic and burned in third-degree,
I feel like the ghost in your tragedy.
You were right. It’s easy to see. Adeline. Adeline …
Whatever it is, it is never enough.
Until I’m no longer human, and you’re no longer sane,
And my face is hot with anger, and I want you just the same.”
Musicians spend years without ever writing a song as good as any written by this 23-year-old Denton, Texas native. When I first heard her, she didn’t have an album released yet, so I searched all over for anything she had ever sung. I found a song titled “Swelling” (which will be on the new album) she wrote for a movie trailer for the documentary “At War” — a film showing footage from Texas filmmaker Scott Kesterson — when he was embedded with the Army National Guard 41st brigade in Afghanistan for a year. It’s a sparse song with beautiful finger-picking guitar and these angelically sung lyrics:
“Hello. How do you feel? / What does that mean? / What does that mean? / High. I guess I feel high. / Cold sweat. Dripping down. My body. / Oh, you’re tryin’ to tell me something with your eyes, / All I wanna do now is lay down and die / If you’re gonna do it, you better do it right. / My heart won’t. Stop. Swelling.”
Now Jaffe is back at it with “Suburban Nature” — an album due out digitally in April 6 and in stores on May 18, through Kirtland Records. The album was produced by John Congleton, who also helped with the EP and has worked with everyone from Modest Mouse and Explosions in the Sky to Polyphonic Spree and Bill Callahan. I know it’s early, and Jaffe currently only has the EP out — but soon enough its going to be time to start mentioning her songwriting skills with a handful of others we consider the best the U.S. has to offer.
Sarah Jaffe “Swelling” (Suburban Nature/Unofficial)
Sarah Jaffe “Clementine” (Suburban Nature)
VIDEO BELOW: “Backwards/Forwards” live in Denton on Jan. 31, 2010