Julia Jacklin plays Vicar Street on November 3rd. This is her first show in Dublin since 2019 and the first on the European tour to accompany her August 2022 album, PRE PLEASURE. I’ve hardly been to any gigs since that pre-COVID year. Even in 2019, I only made it out to nine shows, two of which were hers. So her playing in less than two weeks is a big deal for me and for many others. (Below, I’ll touch on why this level of anticipation is a potential problem for Julia Jacklin in the coming months.)
2019’s Crushing remains my most-played album of the Bandcamp era, basically the last ten years, despite competition from Sufjan Stevens, A Lazarus Soul, The Weather Station, Circuit Des Yeux, The Innocence Mission, and Andy Shauf—among others. I’d never even heard of Andy Shauf until Julia Jacklin told me about him. (He’s so good.) Crushing is up there with R.E.M., Mark Eitzel, The Go-Betweens, The Beatles, and The Breeders. I ordered PRE PLEASURE off Bandcamp on purple signed vinyl because I don’t care any more about coolness.
PRE PLEASURE is a quiet, subtle, stunning record. It is cohesive, gripping, visceral, fluidly melodic, cleansingly honest, and leanly poetic. It is masterfully arranged. Its songs have sounds that are sad, joyful, unsettling, uplifting, gut-knotting, and comforting. Sometimes all at the same time.
I say quiet and subtle: I think those are fair adjectives and not at all reprovals. There is no ‘Turn Me Down’ on PRE PLEASURE, as there was on Crushing, and as far as I can hear there is no counterpart Matterhorn peak, but there’s just as much immersing Rothko colour on this record. I love ‘Turn Me Down’, but I so admire how Julia Jacklin, a trained operatic singer, restrains herself so that the drama in her songs is not confused with melodrama. She is really good on the guitar too and could easily crank out a ‘November Rain’ but decides, for now anyway, not to.
Julia Jacklin adds authentic drama to her albums by filling their songs with narrative specificity and rich vocal texture. She sings like a Sydney sean-nós, elongating lines as little or as long as each needs and filling each phrase with layer upon layer of meaning. This verbal and non-verbal microscopic granularity expands the songs rather than shrinking them. Jacklin sings about life situations that are so clearly experientially truthful—not necessarily i-dottingly factual—that listeners let down their guard. The audience goes: Oh God, that has happened to me.
Think of ‘When The Family Flies In’, from Crushing. Jacklin’s depiction of learning of a friend’s death in her Corolla outside a bar is so vivid that so you can smell the beer, leather, and car-freshener crowding in. The deceased is someone the lads in the pub don’t know, so she’s on her own with her friend: “Oh, the last thing that I sent to you / Was an irrelevant music video… Well goodbye / Well goodbye”. Has anyone hearing this song not had an experience just like this? Haven’t we all lost someone and felt ashamed as well as shocked and sad? Yep. Have we shared our grief-associated guilt with anyone? Nope. So songs like Jacklin’s provide validation and even absolution, putting a firm but gentle hand on our shoulder, like the guy does twice, for some reason, in ‘Hey Jude’.
The clarity in Jacklin’s writing reminds me of the work of her friend Tamara Lindeman. ‘Where The Family Flies In’ is glued, I think, to the song that closes The Weather Station’s Ignorance, ‘Subdivisions’, which opens “Got in the car and the cold metallic scent of snow / Caught in my throat as I reached out to turn on the radio”. Lindeman doesn’t mention the crunch of ice but you can hear it, so all senses are covered, grounding you in a frozen front seat. Or there’s ‘Stars’, from The Weather Station‘s How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars. ‘Stars’ sits you on the roof of a remote car. You note in the night sky the heavenly bodies that have guided and steadied us. That have let us know, since homo sapiens arrived, where we are (not that only humans use celestial navigation). It’s also a song in which you hear the following: see the light from that not-so-distant star? Since the light hitting my eye now left that star, we have utterly fucked our planet. The only liveable one of all the billions rotating those glowing rocks. There’s nothing out there of real value: “Nowhere up there is a place like this / Not one waterfall, no river mist”.
The resonance and relatability of songs like ‘Turn Me Down’ and ‘When The Family Flies In’, along with ‘Love, Try Not To Let Go’, ‘Too In Love To Die’, ‘Be Careful With Yourself’, and ‘End Of A Friendship’ from PRE PLEASURE, is why Julia Jacklin might be in trouble on tour. Like at old Eitzel gigs, audience members bring our personal lives to the shows and project them onto the stage so much that she maybe needs the lights facing her turned up so she can’t see tears in the front rows. I think here of Orwell’s Why I Write and extend that slightly into Why I Perform. A tour is in some ways a nightly re-unearthing of trauma. Is this why someone like Julia Jacklin performs? Does this help her? It wouldn’t seem so—and I am conscious that she told me that she can sing her most popular songs looking like she means it but really thinking about the catering. I was glad to hear it. That is healthy.
Jacklin sings songs that deal with emotions that are as deep and difficult as any human feels, and not just humans. Grief is not confined to our species. When I hear ‘When The Family Flies In’, Sufjan’s ‘Fourth of July’, Mumblin’ Deaf Ro’s ‘The Birdcage’, or Circuit Des Yeux’s ‘Neutron Star’, I think of my mother Mary, and ‘Let It Be’, and of John Lennon primal screaming through songs about his mother Julia on his first solo album. I think of mother orcas that carry their calves around for weeks after they die. I think of elephant grief. And grief is not just about bereavement; it’s about any permanent ending, with none of that “closure” bullshit. The endings of once-tender relationships are so hard to navigate and tolerate.
Writing about perplexing experiences is in one sense processing; it’s unweaving, understanding. I’m sure that is why Julia Jacklin starts a song like ‘End of a Friendship’. I mean—processing is what I’m doing now. But I don’t have to read this bloody thing out loud. And hasn’t the processing been completed by a singer-songwriter long before the tour starts? Then, it becomes more about the audience processing through your music using the performer as an emotional tool. So at that point the performer is aiding the audience, not herself. I do wonder whether even for a writer as generous, brave and personal as Julia Jacklin, there are things she cannot say in songs she’ll have to sing every night. In 1992, Michael Stipe chose Automatic as an album he would not tour and thus could safely voice his dying grandmother in ‘Try Not To Breathe’. Doubt he would have stuck it on Monster.
PRE PLEASURE dramatises heightened life particularly forensically as it ends, through companion closing songs ‘Be Careful With Yourself’ and ‘End of a Friendship’. This closing pairing reminds me of Crushing‘s openers, ‘Body’ And ‘Head Alone’. Those songs voiced opposing and equally valid takes by the same protagonist on the issue of bodily integrity: (‘Body’, “I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body” vs ‘Head Alone’, “I don’t want to be touched all the time / I raise my body up to be mine.)” Artists know that uncertainty is constant. Nothing is locked down.
‘Be Careful With Yourself’ is a declaration of love that sounds like it’s directed at the friend who is lost in the final song. In ‘Be Careful With Yourself’, Jacklin’s character is so twinned to her friend that she threatens taking up lethal habits if her friend won’t quit hers: “Please stop smoking, want your life to last a long time / If you don’t stop smoking, I’ll have to start, shorten mine”. ‘End of a Friendship’ then tells the story of what the title says it will. It recounts a terribly painful interpersonal event and ponders its significance. What it does, as Jacklin songs often do, is to proffer this event and reflection to the listener, asking—Sound familiar? I hope this helps! (I think the answer to Why I Perform for Jacklin is this. It’s this abundant generosity.)
‘End of a Friendship’ opens with the slightly panicked protagonist trying to rationalise a traumatic story to herself. She is back in a hotel room having finished dinner with a close friend. They got hammered and argued about something and they left dinner separately. Initially, the singer hopes things are still OK (“We don’t have to agree all of the time”). Jacklin is careful to stay in present tense self-talk: “Remember she wants to be by your side / Be by your side”. This is a way of keeping the listener in the present tense too, in the same space as the singer, like in that pungent, poignant Corolla. Listening, you are reminded of those remorseful hours after too much Tempranillo. By 3am, your chatty chilled buzz is gone, sleep is unsteady, and your pulse might be flickering too quickly. Red wine stains your hard-brushed gums and you have a tattered fraught feeling. The protagonist drifts into uneasy sleep but then her friend bursts into her room to castigate and abandon her.
First when I heard ‘End of A Friendship’, for some reason I thought: this is is not momentous. This is platonic friendship, not the true love that singers are always going on about. Even after a bunch of listens, the lyrics didn’t really land. I thought: friends fight.
Although the song hooked me straight away, the lyrics were not what embedded themselves. I grew to love this song because of its arrangement. To be irritatingly honest, it was the way the opening chord change and closing confluence of strings, guitar and voice reminded me of cherished early Tindersticks. Even today, when I walked around our garden listening to these songs a dozen times, I heard Stuart Staples’ voice creep in before Julia’s voice enters ‘End of a Friendship’. In fairness, I think the chords of the start of ‘City Sickness’, which was the first song played at my wife’s and my wedding dance, are the same as the chords that open ‘End of A Friendship’. And the dignity of the closing guitar and strings combination hands solace into any listener reconciling themselves with the shitty set of circumstances described, which we will all go through, if we haven’t already.
Then I realised my take on the song’s lyrics was—well—wrong.
This is nothing small! The protagonist is demolished and devastated. She is paralysed and powerless: “Woke up to hear her say that she couldn’t stand it that she couldn’t stay / Out here on the road, it didn’t feel right / She listed the things about me she didn’t like / I sat there in silence, accepted our fate.”
I tried to remember when I’d last had a fight like this that terminated a friendship; that amputated it. I couldn’t think of any. I had an argument in the USA in 1994, post-booze, that seemed to threaten a couple of friendships—we were close enough to be on a cross-country Eitzel pilgrimage to San Francisco and there were voices raised—but we made up in Sun Studios Memphis later that same day over a single shared bottle of Heineken. One friend I could have lost took the above wedding photo fourteen years later. Of course I’ve lost friends. Through death or through distance. But not in a conflagration like in this song; through a simmering down. I have attempted rekindling and rekindling has been attempted with me, and it usually doesn’t work. We’re not who we were back then and we have no time and lots going on. But there you are. What this song hones in on is the brutal disruption of a friendship that seemed like fusion.
The question that keeps coming back to me about these two songs is: does it matter if the friend in each song is the same? Does a loved one tenderising you as she leaves you invalidate the affection that went before? Does a relationship ending like this make the relationship meaningless? Well—no. It can’t. Everything ends.
Jacklin’s pairing of ‘Be Careful With Yourself’ and ‘End of a Friendship’ has had me ruminating about the paradox of the eternal and transitional. This makes me think of the love that passed between Jacklin’s character and her friend’s character, and how the death of that love is a little fictitious. It’s completely true, too, but the love they shared doesn’t die. It’s retained. It has changed them. It hurts but it has helped. Spiritually. Epigenetically.
In relationships, nothing is eternal. We grow and change and move and die. Every moment is one moment long.
You receive a final smile from, hear final words from, and hold hands with your Mum. You pop to Vienna to sit in the Prater with your future wife, because Orson Welles was in it once. You say “Hi Kim” to Kim Deal on October 1st 1990 outside the Stadium and she replies and you still know, three times the age you were then, where you each were on the SCR footpath. You smell your babies’ heads for the first time and your olfactory brain can smell them for you still, at will. On a random Tuesday, your son, who is seven, nuzzles into your left side angling for your arm and says, from nowhere, “Daddy, every day is special”. You wish you could freeze that moment but you can’t. That does not devalue it.
Even simpler things. You inch into the sea at Curracloe in July and tread clear cold water when ten metres away—splash!—up pops a seal that stares or glares at you. Transfixed, you maintain eye contact as long as you can. It’s two minutes. Then he or she ducks under and heads off to the Saltees. Perfect moments can’t last. Their brevity, their entry into the past tense, does not diminish them.
I have this habit of going in to the kids when I’m off to bed when they are asleep and whispering to them how much I love them. How they are the greatest. I like telling them that no-one has ever been loved more than they are by me. I mean—it’s true. I’m hoping their sleeping brains hear. I tell them when they’re awake too. I learned from my wife that you don’t have to be sparing with the I Love Yous. They’re not depreciated by frequent use. But I like telling them then when they’re asleep too. I like when I whisper in their ears while stroking their heads and they murmur or twist in slow wave sleep, as if they heard, which they didn’t. I want to keep laying down this solid cerebral layer of love. Then in a generation, they’ll still know, and if and when they are mums and dads, they’ll know how to transmit the love I gave them to their kids, and maybe their kids to their kids in turn. They’ll know the language, verbal and non-verbal. It just gladdens the heart to think that a night whisper now could make someone more secure, happier, in thirty or fifty years.
The song that ends PRE PLEASURE is about the end of a friendship. But the more I listen to the album the more I listen in reverse and land on ‘Be Careful With Yourself’. I just think that the love that appears to be lost in the final song is not lost. The song beckoning me slightly more is the one that depicts love at its most active. Love doesn’t end. Like energy and matter, it is neither created nor destroyed. It’s continually reflected, reabsorbed and re-transmitted. “Love goes on anyway,” sang The Go-Betweens, keeping it steady and free of mystique. Paul sang “The love we take is equal to the love we make”. I don’t know. That seems not quite the point. John sang, on his Primal Scream album, “Love is real, real is love / Love is feeling, feeling, love / Love is wanting to be loved”. I agree with that.
All the love we have to give away we have because we received it. Because it was quickly or slowly infused into us. The love we radiate, the love we share, does not stop there, even when a friendship ends. Love keeps moving, sparking, restoring and replenishing, bouncing back at us and generations that will come after us like the light from those stars that The Weather Station sing about. As The Breeders once asked: Does love ever end? When two hearts have torn away? Or does it go on, and beat strong anyway?