Stream Cassandra Jenkins’ Stunning New Album An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
Cassandra Jenkins has been kicking around for years. She’s well-known in a certain circle of the New York music scene. She’s played in bands for Craig Finn and Eleanor Friedberger; she was supposed to tour with Purple Mountains. She also put her own music, releasing a debut album called Play Till You Win in 2017. But with her new sophomore outing An Overview On Phenomenal Nature, she’s making her name in a different way. For a patient, quietly layered album, An Overview demands your attention, draws you in so you can soak up all its details and twists. It’s the sort of album that makes you think Jenkins won’t have much time to play in other people’s bands in the coming years.
There aren’t a lot of songs on An Overview, but Jenkins packs a whole lot into them. Musically speaking, most of the album at least originates in a kind of singer-songwriter vein before the songs build and complicate themselves up around her; there’s a sort of organic fluidity, synth textures or breathy saxophones rising at unexpected turns, when you think the song was going to stick in a different lane. Jenkins recorded the album in just a week with the increasingly in-demand Josh Kaufman, and together they made a small family of songs that are pristine, articulate, shimmering, but also lived-in and conversational.
At the same time, Jenkins’ new songs have a funny way of ending somewhere quite different than they began while simultaneously making you feel as if you are suspended in a cloud with her, not entirely sure how much time has passed one way or another. “New Bikini” and “Ambiguous Norway” are the best examples of this, reflective and gorgeous songs that immerse you in Jenkins’ own travels and trials. Those two songs also allude to a period in the wake of David Berman’s death, and they signify the album’s ability to take small moments and sift through them for whatever messages can be gleaned. In “New Bikini,” there’s a recurring image of walking into the water to wash it all away; but also the quotidian banality of purchasing a new bathing suit; “Ambiguous Norway” relates back to the story, bidding goodbye to purple mountains while drifting through the sort of thought haze that occurs when you find yourself meditating on big life events while stuck in the liminal space of a long flight.
An Overview is also an unusual prospect in terms of a front-to-back album. For example: An album that opens with a song like “Michelangelo” suggests a kind of well-crafted, folk-tinged singer-songwriter endeavor, but then that album also ends with a seven minute ambient piece called “The Ramble. The calming atmospherics that lingered at the edge of the songs otherwise have finally overtaken them, as if to sweep Jenkins or us away into a better, more peaceful time.
All the little gestures and thoughts and traumas and victories mingle together on the album’s standout, “Hard Drive,” one of the best songs released in this young year. “Hard Drive” is a masterful piece of songwriting, Jenkins adopting a spoken word approach for the verses, and each of those verses telling of a different encounter. One, an art lecture from a museum guard, another a driving lesson, the final a chance run-in with a psychic at an apartment party. Musically, “Hard Drive” is as carefully deployed as its storytelling, gently propulsive guitar chimes and sax carrying Jenkins forward just a bit more insistently as the song goes on; the song gains momentum behind her as she moves through these memories, as if beckoning her closer to an answer. Then again, that’s not really the point: Jenkins gleans what she can from each wise person, but it’s not like everything’s fixed. It all ends with a breathing exercise, a chant, a hope for a better year.
That might be what makes An Overview so beautiful: It is an album in transit, songs becoming something else as they go on or maybe still never reaching a planned destination. Eventually, they drift off into the air from which they first emerged. But maybe just by making the passage through, the words stick around and rearrange themselves, just as they do for Jenkins in “Hard Drive.” It might not be clear where it’s all going to lead, but there’s at least the promise of it being someplace else, someplace new.
An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is out today. It’s a small but resounding collection that sounds like a balm in the bleary pandemic winter we’ve been living through; perhaps it will provide some comfort in your life. You can listen below to find out.