By Garrett Strpko
I finally share with you my much-postponed “review” of the new album from singer-songwriter Jess Abbott, Nightstand, released June 1 of this year. That I should be writing a review of any album is already uncalled-for, let alone one by a queer woman. I am not a music critic, nor do I have any sort of formal training in music history or music production, and as a straight white man whom grew up barely interacting with people all that different from myself, that I should have anything useful to critique about queer art is questionable. However, I have a notion that this particular album grasps something universal that I think is worth sharing. If you’re looking for a truly eloquent review of Nightstand, I will direct you towards this tweet, which is probably also the only piece of music criticism you could ever need:
Whereas many associate Abbott with her former role as a guitarist for indie band Now, Now, my experience with her music has always been as Tancred, when she opened for Julien Baker at Calvin College in April 2018. I was instantly captivated by how she conveyed such a sense of vulnerability when they started their set with what I now recognize as the album-opener, “Song One,” which instantly assures the listener “I will not lie to you/these words will be true,” before relating an intimate snapshot of discovering love; “I knew I loved her, then and there/I knew I loved her, touched her hair.” In this short reflection Abbott sets the stage for the entire album, marked by honesty, vulnerability, and thus, intimacy.
What makes Tancred unique, however, is not just this intimacy, nor the uncanny songwriting ability, which of course helps, but its juxtaposition with a post-punk, sometimes grungy, boot-stomping sound and attitude. At the Julien Baker show, we as the audience sure liked what we were hearing from Tancred, but we knew we had found something special when, after dealing with some minor feedback for most of the performance, Abbott smiled, saying “we’re going to play some older songs now, so there’ll probably be feedback,” threw off her glasses, kicked on the distortion, and launched the band into material from her previous album, Out of the Garden, a considerably louder and rockier outing than Nightstand. And feedback there was.
But the lyrics to match are not as simple as those of Abbott’s punk forbearers, whom used simplicity in lyrics to illustrious effect in navigating the primal feeling their music strove for. Within those power-pop riffs and dissonant chords are hidden something that to me feels more openly introspective, and deeply personal. The sexual is not purely sexual, but intimate. In “Queen of New York,” Abbott not only refers to the person with whom she’s shared a one night stand as “the queen of my lust” but also laments the loss of the connection they shared- “when we were here/we both felt it/Not alone, but I can feel it now.” Anger is not purely anger, but mixed with longing. In “Just You,” she passive-aggressively jaunts “she thinks you’re a shirt/she hangs you up for weeks… And she wears you in front of the mirror/And she takes you off when you don't fit her.” But this is matched with hopeless desire: “I'm a kid in love with you/I'm Romeo dumb and you're Juliet blue/I'm a kid/I can't grow up/Cause every time we touch we both die young.”
Abbott commands this tension with greater mastery from album to album which is why Nightstand stands out as Tancred’s best. In Out of the Garden, for example, that tension primarily exists between the music itself and the lyrics themselves. In Nightstand, this inexplicable contrast occurs this way, but also within the music and within the lyrics, daring to be explored over and over again. My personal favorite track off the album, “Underwear,” would on any other album be a rather straight-up rocker with electric guitars and distorted bass. Here, however, there’s complexity to be found in the backing instruments- a cello playing long, drawn out chords and bass notes hammered on the low end of a piano. "Strawberry Selfish," one of the slower and quieter tracks off the album, conveys it through it's bass line, which consistently anticipates a chord change by going to a clear transitional note, then returns to it's original note leaving the tension less-than-resolved.
But what names could be assigned to the opposing ends of this tug-of-war? I struggle to find a truly encapsulating pair of characteristics. Part of me wants to call it the tension between vulgarity and innocence, between which the line is often thin, if existent whatsoever, but even this feels like a particular instance of a larger dynamic. Dare I say that this beautiful struggle which Abbott captures with such peculiar insight is reminiscent of that between the sacred and the profane, that inexplicable dynamic that is almost always better expressed in art than in dictionary definitions. The language of her lyrics captures the feelings and symbols at the opposing ends of this tension rather than attempting to describe it outright. The lyrics of the album closer “Rowing,” a catchy, daringly subjective self-examination, express it magnificently- “I am crude and sweet in bed/I am gentle in a dress.” It's through these kinds of pictures and expressions that language works as a tool to indirectly communicate something that it could not hope to convey directly.
Language, after all, can only go so far. The divine, the Wholly Other, the spiritual, the sacred- whatever you’d like to call it- is characterized as that phantom which our man-made constructs of communication can hardly hope to even brush up against. And that is one of the many beauties to me of music, because at its best it does not attempt to describe, but to simply express and let be, and Nightstand stands as one unique reflection among many that does just this.