Jessica Pratt possesses a rare ability to slow down time. Her textured voice is among the strangest and most compelling in our contemporary music landscape and her songs are built on small observations that speak to bigger themes and resolutions that are just out of reach. Pratt’s lyrics are like free-associative bits of poetry, strung together by uncanny melodies that sound like something you’ve heard before but can’t quite place. On her third album, Quiet Signs, Pratt is a patient narrator, one who notices ghosts when they surface in familiar places, the bright flashes of color on a gray day.
Pratt’s last album, 2015’s On Your Own Love Again, was born of a series of endings. Her mother had passed away, a longterm relationship dissolved, and Pratt moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. As she had with her 2012 self-titled debut, Pratt recorded On Your Own Love Again at home using an old four-track. The sessions produced a collection of songs that teeter on the edge of darkness, best exemplified by single “Strange Melody,” which chronicles a betrayal. It’s built on a psychedelic, stuttering guitar refrain that might soundtrack a particularly gripping moment in a silent film.
Quiet Signs is no less immersive, and like On Your Own Love Again, this new album emerged from a transitional period. Pratt was all packed and ready to move back to San Francisco when she met the multi-instrumentalist Matthew McDermott. They fell in love, moved in together, and started working on new music. McDermott’s piano is the first sound you hear on Quiet Signs’ introductory track “Opening Night.” Pratt’s signature nylon guitar is noticeably absent from the arrangement and we instead hear her cooing along, formulating a wordless melody to accompany his chords.
Instead of working entirely alone, Pratt wrote Quiet Signs in California and flew to New York to work in a proper studio. Not wanting to lose the lo-fi aesthetic that defined her early career, Pratt took care to honor the spontaneous elements of her songwriting process. Quiet Signs doesn’t sound like a blown-out studio album. The instrumentation is more adventurous — Pratt’s fingerpicking is accompanied by synth, organ, flute, and piano throughout — but a familiar tape hiss underscores every song. It’s personable, like you’re sitting in a room with Pratt as she performs.
Intimacy is the desired effect of Quiet Signs. On the lilting “Here My Love,” Pratt comes the closest she ever has to “confessional.” It’s a love song, one that doesn’t focus on the forever but rather the fragility of a fledgling romance. “Oh, I’ve thought of it time to time/ Our stolen city sighs/ I’ll lose him, how do I… ?” she trails off on the chorus. Pratt asks rhetorical questions throughout Quiet Signs as if she is trying to make sense of a lingering feeling, like on “Silent Song,” when she crystalizes a moment of newfound independence. “I longed to stay with you/ Or did I/ Belong to my song/ Here I’ll wonder, soldier on,” she harmonizes with herself, as if to provide some reassurance that she’s never alone, not really.
The ease with which Pratt performs these songs gives them the illusion that they were conjured up out of nowhere. In interviews, Patt has been reluctant to delve into the details of her songwriting process, describing her creative world as “private.” She says she doesn’t self-analyze much, and that her music is mostly inspired by the artists who colored her childhood. Quiet Signs, like her previous two albums, is built on an array of influences that span continents. Though Pratt is most often compared to British folk singers of the 1960s, the lithe, fingerpicked melody of “Poly Blue” owes itself to vintage Brazilian pop. The lush closing track “Aeroplane” opens with a shimmying tambourine, a nod to the muted psychedelia of the Velvet Underground or Nico. Lead single “This Time Around” is pastoral folk and its lyrics read like something out of a Romantic-era poem: “This time around has it gone so grey that my faith can’t hold out?/ Haven’t you heard there’s a somber wind gets my head away now/ Hallowed be thy name, had you come to claim it?/ All upon her face were the lost and strange years.”
Quiet Signs gives the impression that those lost and strange years are somewhere in the rearview. Pratt’s confidence is palpable on this album, and in some ways it might read as a long goodbye to a different period in her life, one that was perhaps more unmoored, a little bit less certain. This is made most obvious on “Fare Thee Well,” when Pratt encourages a “soft and gray love” to “sail on.” “I’ve been years on the wrong side and I/ I used to see a cause and a call/ Now, I know it’s over now/ Had to notice you in the crowd,” the chorus goes. The song might address a lover or a friend or a past self that Pratt no longer recognizes. That ambiguity makes it timeless.
Quiet Signs is out 2/8 via Mexican Summer. Stream it at NPR.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Ariana Grande’s Sweetener follow-up Thank U, Next (we haven’t heard it yet)
• Bob Mould’s fiery Sunshine Rock
• Cass McCombs’ blissed-out Tip Of The Sphere
• HEALTH’s punishing Vol. 4: Slaves Of Fear
• Mercury Rev’s Bobbie Gentry tribute album The Delta Sweete Revisited
• Panda Bear’s minimalist (for Panda Bear) Buoys
• Xiu Xiu’s surrealist Girl With The Basket Of Fruit
• The Lemonheads’ cover album Varshons 2
• Memphis’ crowdfunded Leave With Me
• British folk legend Michael Chapman’s True North
• Black Dresses’ THANK YOU, out now