Music

Julia Jacklin’s new album Crushing has moments when her lyrical directness perfectly complements its dark folk-rock sound, which excuse some of the experimental missteps elsewhere.

By Shaad D’Souza.

Julia Jacklin’s Crushing

Julia Jacklin
Credit: Nick Mckk

Crushing is a word that almost always brings to mind imbalances of power and control – being crushed by something larger, a crushing feeling of rejection, crushing on someone out of reach. Melbourne-based, Blue Mountains-raised singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin has taken the word as the title of her sophomore album, just out on Liberation Records, and it’s fitting. Because while Crushing’s ultra-saturated cover art and aesthetic seem designed to evoke feelings of winsome crushes and new romance, the album – a collection of 10 darkly toned folk-rock tracks – seeks to capture the nauseating tailspin of losing control over one’s life. There are no love-crush songs to be found on this record in the style of “Coming of Age”, the single that led Jacklin’s acclaimed debut album, Don’t Let the Kids Win. With Crushing, Jacklin gathers pain and shame and heartbreak and packs it all into one often beautiful, occasionally inscrutable release.

Crushing, while by no means a concept album, mainly zeroes in on an identity crisis Jacklin experienced after a break-up and nearly two years of constant touring. There are common tropes to be found in the tracklist: a song about the blow-up that led to the eventual break-up, a song about trying to move back into the dating scene, a song about looking back on the relationship with rose-tinted spectacles, and so on. Jacklin creates music that often sounds familiar, so Crushing’s appeal is staked on her ability to find new angles through which to explore well-worn structures.

A lot of the time, it works. The album’s opening suite comprises three of this young year’s finest rock songs, a set of tracks that push Jacklin’s art in a way that she’s rarely expressed elsewhere. The opener and lead single “Body” stuns, offering a humid kiss-off that builds and boils towards a climax that never arrives. The song is pure tension and vitriol and contains some of Jacklin’s most beautiful turns of phrase. The quiet, weary refrain of “I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body” is imbued with kilotonnes of meaning, especially when it arrives after some of the album’s most chilling, heartbreaking passages:

 

I remembered early days

when you took my camera

turned to me, 23, naked on your bed looking
      straight at ya

Do you still have that photograph?

Would you use it to hurt me?

 

Jacklin has an acute sense of the body, in both abstract and concrete, situational senses. On “Body” she is “heading to the city to get [her] body back”. The next track, “Head Alone”, takes its title, among other things, from the idea that men will rarely take women on the value of their “head alone”. On the third track, “Pressure to Party”, she abstains from drinking so as to not wind up outside her ex’s house. More often than not, the body works as an axis point for Jacklin, a place from which to draw metaphor or meaning. Lyrics are often the strongest part of her work – she has a knack for writing complex narratives in an admirably economical way. Most of the time, her vocals are high in the mix to make the most of this. On louder songs, though, such as “Pressure to Party”, her voice has a tendency to disappear, which at times can be frustrating, as Jacklin rarely writes throwaway lines.

Crushing’s taut opening trio of tracks finish on propulsive, memorable, notes. “Head Alone”, which boasts the brilliant chorus of “I don’t want to be touched all the time / I raised my body up to be mine”, makes reference to the way female musicians are treated as they navigate their careers. And “Pressure to Party” is joyous despite the emotional conflict at its centre – Jacklin’s hesitance to follow the advice she’s given in the aftermath of her break-up. These songs are emotionally cutting and sonically vibrant. But while there are highlights to be found in the album’s back half, there’s little else on Crushing that lives up to its opening salvo.

At its least successful, Jacklin’s music can sound like algorithm fodder, music designed to appear in as many Spotify playlists as possible. A song like “Good Guy”, for example, rarely asserts Jacklin as an artist distinct from contemporaries such as St Louis musician Angel Olsen, to whom Jacklin is frequently compared, or Adrianne Lenker of the Brooklyn band Big Thief. A kind of sonic wateriness is a trait that carries over from Jacklin’s 2016 album, Don’t Let the Kids Win, which suffered from a general lack of identity. But luckily it’s not the main feature of Crushing, and not one that sinks the album. Elsewhere it finds Jacklin experimenting with different ways to convey her consistently compelling lyrics, and while not all the experiments are successful, they at least point to the idea that she is very actively pushing against the folk-rock conventions she often works in.

“Turn Me Down” is one such track, a curio that I couldn’t help but find more interesting than good. Beginning as a fairly traditional midtempo love song, it finds Jacklin fantasising about a romance. About a third of the way through, the band cuts out, leaving Jacklin to beg her hypothetical lover to “turn [her] down”, over and over, until the phrase is extended into a kind of maniacal wail. It’s the kind of song that’s an exciting first listen but has diminishing appeal, though it doesn’t feel like a cheap exercise in experimentation. Jacklin seems a cautious artist and the inclusion of “Turn Me Down” is a welcome show of brazenness and bravery.

Crushing is at its strongest when Jacklin works closest to the album’s core idea of control. “Convention” is one of the warmest tracks, a delicately fingerpicked guitar ballad about ignoring the unsolicited advice given to her by men in the music industry. “I can tell you won’t sleep well,” she sings, “if you don’t teach me how to do it right.” When you realise what she’s singing about, the clash of her earnest falsetto and the sour lyrics is a jolt to the system. This kind of music is not at all of the moment, but Jacklin often finds ways to make her songs feel bracing. That’s a coup in itself – she is making old-fashioned music in a very modern music landscape and making some of it seem not only relevant but vital. Crushing is not a perfect work but as a means of Jacklin finding control of herself and her art in the face of chaos, it hits the mark.

Arts Diary

THEATRE How to Rule the World

Sydney Opera House, until March 30

MULTIMEDIA BrisAsia Symposium 2019: Belonging

QPAC, Brisbane, March 1

FASHION Melbourne Fashion Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, March 1-10

CABARET La Soiree 2019

The Ice Cream Factory, Perth, until March 3

OPERA The Magic Flute

Adelaide Festival Theatre, March 1-3

BALLET Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

QPAC, Brisbane, February 25—March 2

MUSIC Rhye

Melbourne Recital Centre, March 6-7

Last chance

COMEDY Agency

The Butterfly Club, Melbourne, February 28

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 23, 2019 as "Crush course". Subscribe here.

Shaad D’Souza
is a Melbourne-based music critic and former Australian editor of Noisey.