Jess Williamson 'Heart Song'
Instead of falling into the dreaded sophomore slump after her critically acclaimed debut, Native State, Austin songstress Jess Williamson digs in even deeper on Heart Song.
Over seven sparse, stunning tracks, Williamson mines the nitty-gritty of the human heart, reminding us there’s beauty to be found in wounded vulnerability; the experience and transcendence that can be wrung out of hurt, of doubt, of feeling.
Like Native State, Heart Song, is open, spacious, with plenty of room for light and air. Seven-minute songs like “Last Word” and the title track have places for you to crawl into, to catch your breath, as Williamson’s truly arresting voice lets you in on her innermost thoughts. “Love is something you realize/And it goes on thick/And vulnerable as ice,” she sings on the mysterious, sensual opener, “Say It,” her voice taking on the feral, feline passion of Patti Smith, or Cat Power at her lustiest. Next comes the translucent “White Bed,” the most intimate song on the album. Fingers, barely a whisper on the guitar strings while Williamson’s voice is so fierce in it’s quiet that couplets like “I am at an impasse/I don’t know what’s beautiful anymore” cut like a hot knife.
Unlike the banjo that was present through much of Native State, Williamson’s roots are represented here by less obvious methods. There’s the lonesome highway guitars on “Heart Song,” the gunslinger outro of “Snake Song,” and the gentle, south-of-the-border, hacienda vibe of “See You In A Dream,” a song that could be about a loved one who has passed on, or an ex-lover who might as well be dead. Either way, the heartbeat of the bass drum and lyrics like “I cared about your stories/I was just distracted/and now I can’t hear them anymore,” will bowl you right over.
The two centerpieces of the album clock in past the seven-minute mark, each so masterfully crafted that every second feels essential. “Heart Song” plays out like a Texas storm, ominously cloudy as Williamson questions, “Is freedom really nothing left to lose?” Suddenly, the sky opens up as a rapture of noise swirls around her voice--now straining to rise from the din. Suddenly it’s over, fading out like an exhale; the storm has passed, leaving only the soaked dirt. Then there’s “Last Word,” a sumptuous, slow burner about being in love with a friend’s (or ex-friend’s: “She and I/We ain’t close anymore”) guy. At its heart, it’s a traditional country song that Williamson pulls and stretches into epic poetry that somehow stays relatable; an inner-monologue on which we’re allowed to listen in, so well expressed that it becomes our own.
Heart Song is a powerful work by an artist coming into her full strength. This is the kind of music that changes you. Listening to this album, even just “White Bed,” “Heart Song,” or “Last Word” on their own will alter your mood, leaving you calm, focused, realigned, but also a shade darker. Williamson’s capacity to simultaneously soothe and disrupt is truly exceptional, a unique talent that we can only hope will continue to grow.
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