There seems to be a sense
around town that Sarah Jaffe's latest release Suburban Nature just might be the thing to send her beyond the DFW scene. Following in the footsteps of Norah Jones
and St. Vincent,
two artists who I think anyone could confidently say have "made it." After spending some time with Nature, I have some reservations about Jaffe being the chosen one to close the commercial trifecta some are hoping for.
My critique of this album is almost purely based on the merits of it's songwriting. The music is all very boring, predictable and very polished. This isn't great, but it doesn't have to be a deal-breaker for me, especially when it comes from an artist whose centerpiece is the lyrical content. I am a big believer in the idea of the songwriter being our modern day poets. While this is hard to say in public without coming off as overly pretentious, the security of the blog-o-sphere offers me the freedom to say so. Of course there are the great songwriters that are known world over, but I also believe that nearly every town, especially those with colleges in them, potentially breed singer/songwriters of great worth that don't see the light of day outside the city limits. I am sure that your impatient ass already looked down to see the rating and know that I do not hold Jaffe in this category.
My overarching argument would have to be that the album is damn boring. There is no point on this recording where Jaffe does anything that makes her stand out from the previously mentioned troubadours playing coffee shops across America. If the album's production wasn't so pristine, maybe the music wouldn't sound so distant. Having some grime around edges can help us believe you aren't just a contempo-folk bot. The illusion of intimacy can be pretty easily attained. Instead, every song sounds like it was written for one of those mix CDs that you buy along side a double latte at Starbucks.
Each song on Suburban Nature is a mini-ode to heartache with Jaffe (or her characters) as the protagonist. Music of this nature lends itself to an intimate relationship with the listener. I have to say that I'm not too comfortable in the part that Jaffe wants me to play. You know those friends that are ALWAYS getting fucked over by their significant others; always ready to play the part of the lovelorn ingenue done wrong by some beautiful apparition? I know that when your heart is broken, it is hard to see past the immediacy of those feelings, but must you always be the protagonist? Ms. Jaffe, were you
never the one to fuck up? She is asking the listener to be a sympathetic friend to unload her problems on, but I felt more like the jilted ex-lover wishing she would stop complaining and accept the finality of our failed romance.
There are parts of the album that I did enjoy. "Vulnerable" works, because she tries to tell a story and doesn't rely on abstract "woe is me" songwriting. "Summer Begs" is another highlight where Jaffe does show that she can at least begin to paint a scene. This is achieved by giving us the details and nuance of a love gone wrong. Instead of just myopic self-reference, we get some semblance of characters the listener might care about.
As I said before, I have been known to be won over by singer/songwriters that share similarities with Jaffe. The first thing that pops into my mind is an artist with local ties: Ladel
. The two artists share many similarities as gloomy female singer/songwriters. Ladel's songwriting, while a bit more dramatic than Jaffe's, still has an earnest quality to it that the songs on Suburban are missing, that being wit or self-reflection. Always the martyr in the ways of the heart, Jaffe's musings might be comforting to those who always find themselves on the sharp end of the blade, but for the rest of us bloodied-hand individuals, there isn't much to relate to.
This might work as a cathartic experience, much in the way it does with Mark Kozelek's
work, but I had trouble sympathizing with Jaffe. The songs never do anything beyond the "boo-hoo my heart is broken" schtick. Of course there are other more recognizable artists (Julie Doiron
, Cat Power
, Shannon Wright
) that I found myself longing to listen to while trudging through this album.
Is it unfair for me to assume that this is the market that Jaffe is attempting to break through to here? I think that anyone who has followed her the past couple years (which, if you follow the local music scene, it would have been hard not to) can see that it would be a fair assumption that she has those particular stars in her eyes. I wish that more acts in the area had the dedication and career-minded focus that Jaffe has, and you can't say it hasn't worked for her. I just have a hard time believing that this is going to the album to take her from selling out coffee shops to the Granada theaters of Anywhere, USA.
1 1/2 of 5