I only came across Cassandra Jenkins this February through Pitchfork’s Best New Music, when her second album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature was awarded an incredibly precise 8.3 out of 10. I first listened on the drive home from work during which attention can be patchy so the first song I properly heard was the fifth track, ‘Ambiguous Norway’. I heard Jenkins sing “Farewell, purple mountains”, and then “No matter where I go / You’re gone, you’re everywhere”, and I thought, wait: is that “purple mountains” or is that “Purple Mountains”? It was the latter.
Jenkins, I learned, was due to play with Purple Mountains, David Berman’s band, on a tour in Autumn 2019. Berman died by suicide in August 2019 and the setting of ‘Ambiguous Norway’ is a trip that Jenkins took in the aftermath of his passing. (You know this because elsewhere, in ‘New Bikini’, she sings “After David passed away / My friends put me up for a few days / Off the coast of Norway”).
There is a quiet shock to ‘Ambiguous Norway’, which is so hushed and delicate that it feels like a gentle goodbye kiss, that final kiss on the forehead as the person reposes. Jenkins is devastated (“Can’t seem to grasp what happened / I close my eyes”) yet already as this stunned song ends you can hear, I think, early healing. She concludes ‘Ambiguous Norway’ with “I walk around alone / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street / Laughing in the street”, and I imagine her in the frozen North warmly remembering Berman’s life, friendship, and humour. She would not have repeated “laughing” three times, would she, had she not intended Berman’s famous wit to be memorialised alongside the excruciating sadness.
And it feels all of Phenomenal Nature exists in the shadow of this great loss, concerned either with the loss itself or with healing. The songs allow for the possibility of healing.
In ‘New Bikini’, Jenkins’ family and friends encourage her to use the sea to restore herself: “If you’re bruised or scraped / Or any kind of broken / The water, it cures everything”. By the end of the song she is passing this advice on in turn to a friend: “My friend Grey is sick again / The doctors shell out medicine / And add there might be something in / The mind-body connection / So I told him / Baby, let’s get you to the ocean”.
This manoeuvre一accepting help, then reflecting that help on to others who might also need it一is something Jenkins does again in ‘Hard Drive’, which is as much of a four-act play as anything.
The voice that opens act one of ‘Hard Drive’ belongs to a security guard at an exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in summer 2019. She says, “When we lose our connection to nature / We lose our spirit, our humanity, our sense of self”. A New Age mystic in act two speaks of “chakras and karma and the purple flame / The birth of the cosmos / The ascended masters and the astral plane”. There is a friend, Darryl, in act three, teaching Jenkins to drive at thirty-five, who is unlike any driving instructor I ever had: “Speeding up the west side / Changing lanes / He reminds me to leave room for grace”.
In the song’s act-four finale, Jenkins meets a healer: “I ran into Perry at Lowell’s place / Her gemstone eyes caught my gaze”. It’s not clear if they know each other but the other woman instantly recognises something in her: she says, “Oh, dear, I can see you’ve had a rough few months / But this year / It’s gonna be a good one”. Intuitively she offers: “I’ll count to three and tap your shoulder / We’re gonna put your heart back together”. The songs’ pace seems to slow like a heartbeat on a long exhale as she continues: “So close your eyes / I’ll count to three / Take a deep breath / Count with me”.
Then a guitar makes a metallic sound like a meditation gong and the song acquires this centred stillness; it acquires the character of a heart meditation. Jenkins sings “One, two, three / One, two, three / Just breathe / One, two, three / Count with me”. As the song’s narrator, Jenkins ventriloquises her character Perry, quoting words Perry spoke to her. As the song’s singer, though, any healing words spoken by a character in her song become healing words spoken by her to us.
In this song as it exists within this album, the heart to be put back together was one broken by grief for David Berman. But ‘Hard Drive’ knows that people out there listening have had their hearts broken too, to a variety of degrees in a multitude of ways. ‘Hard Drive’ uses Jenkins’ own experience of suffering to stretch out a hand to anyone who feels fraught, frightened, pained, uncontained. “One, two, three / Just breathe”, says this song’s warm, wise voice; “One, two, three / Count with me“. If I can put my heart back together, the voice says, then you can do yours too. I’ve got you. Just breathe.