Cassandra Jenkins Continues Her Search on My Light, My Destroyer

Following up her 2021 triumph An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, the New York singer-songwriter deepens her exploration of the self and the universe through affecting, comprehensive songs that template a spiritually healthy existence.

Music Reviews Cassandra Jenkins
Cassandra Jenkins Continues Her Search on My Light, My Destroyer

After her 2021 breakout album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, Cassandra Jenkins could have done anything. She left everything resolved, no unfinished ideas. She took her listeners with her wherever she went: We spent time at home, in New York, where a consequential encounter with a Met Breuer security guard spelled inspiration and the inimitable fan-favorite track “Hard Drive.” We left home, too, a Norway sojourn and ocean immersion providing temporary relief after the death of David Berman. We met Jenkins’s friends and acquaintances—even her driving instructor—and sat in reflective silence at the Ramble in Central Park. The arrangements were adventurous, gentle yet direct, embracing a colorful gamut of influences and instruments to create an immediately quintessential “Cassandra Jenkins” sound. If there was one complaint among the mass of positive reviews and best-of-the-year blurbs, it was that the seven-track album left us craving no less than seven more.

My Light, My Destroyer, then, is everything a third Cassandra Jenkins album should be: Across 13 pieces of music, dialogue and field recordings, Jenkins invites us closer to home and takes us further away. We’re in the flower shop where she works, then in Illinois, then Phoenix, then at her local pet store, then with her on an airplane. Most notably, we meet Sandra, her mother. We know from the lyrics of “New Bikini” that Sandra is a grounding presence and fountain of advice. Taking Sandra’s involvement to its logical next step, Jenkins presents her mother’s speaking voice during “Betelgeuse,” allowing us to listen in on their stargazing session.

“That’s Mars. Do you see where it’s really reddish—yeah, here,” Sandra effuses in a nurturing tone of voice, benevolently momsplaining the solar system as her daughter offers quiet, captivated affirmations. One of Jenkins’s most intimate and peaceful creations, “Betelgeuse” is the longest of three found sound-based interludes delineating My Light, My Destroyer. The candid back-and-forth is interpolated over a spacious bed of twinkling piano and the paper-thin flutters of two saxophones, which nestle into one another in a parallel conversation.

On a macro level, space is to My Light, My Destroyer what the ocean, and nature more broadly, was to An Overview on Phenomenal Nature: the gateway to inspiration and perspective. During “Aurora, IL,” Jenkins finds herself secluded in a hotel a thousand miles from home, staving off boredom by “circling the parking lot just to see blue sky / I watch planes fly / Over the city / Caught in space, time / Nowhere to be.” A take on the Gram Parsons school of ‘70s country rock, the arrangement is blissfully lackadaisical; her Stratocaster plods lazily through crisp major chords in keeping with that “nowhere to be” vibe. Eventually, the song blasts off with a rush of guitars that tear through the balmy afternoon.

Jenkins uses this sleepy downtime to ponder Star Trek legend William Shatner’s 2021 trip to space, part of the Jeff Bezos-funded Blue Origin program. Though framed as a pleasure trip, Blue Origin was a disturbing experience for Shatner, eliciting something called the Overview Effect, which many astronauts experience. As Shatner recounted in his book, “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.” “He couldn’t stop talking about the color blue,” Jenkins sympathizes.

Writing in The Overview Effect, Frank White explained, “All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.” Cassandra Jenkins is well-acquainted with overviews, and Shatner’s experience seems to shift her onto the creative path that she traverses on My Light, My Destroyer, sparking the kind of grounded, grounding epiphanies that we saw on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature—songs to talk you down from a panic attack or proverbial rocket ship. (Heck, maybe from a literal rocket ship; has anyone sent this album to Shatner?)

The stunning “Delphinium Blue,” for instance, is centered on the meditative mundanities of Jenkins’s part-time florist job, recounted in a way that fills them with as much purpose and consequence as the things visible through Sandra’s telescope. Either way, you need your eyes level. “Chin up, stay on task / Wash the windows, count the cash,” Jenkins softly commands, as though leading a guided meditation. A synthetic choir cascades behind her and bulbous clangs of synthesizer echo like colliding space shuttle debris. It’s the most Laurie Anderson track on the album; it’s also one of the only times we get Jenkins’s iconic spoken-word delivery—à la “Take a deep breath, count with me”—but that seldom usage makes it more impactful as it cuts through the humid, florid hubbub of the flower shop.

Likewise, “Petco” looks to simple, controllable acts for respite. “It’s become my second nature / To wander through the pet store / And stare into the sideways gaze of a lizard / Doesn’t always make me feel better / Just less alone,” Jenkins sighs on one of her most straightforward indie rock tracks—its scratchy, convulsing guitars and jerky rhythm reminiscent of bands like Slow Pulp and Momma, while its lyrics are deceptively simple (“the dishes pile up, my heart sinks”—not in the sink—is a great example of how her couplets subvert expectations). These expressions of loneliness and heartbreak run through My Light, My Destroyer. They are declared during the first seconds of the serene opener—“I think you’ve mistaken my desperation for devotion”—and with the “I don’t wanna laugh alone anymore” refrain from “Clams Casino,” surely the most uplifting back-to-back pairing in her whole catalog.

The de facto title track, “Omakase,” is the most explicit adoption of the astronomy-heartbreak metaphor. Its title roughly translates to “I’ll leave it up to you,” commonly used when ordering a meal in Japanese restaurants. But, in this context, it is Jenkins surrendering to not a waiter, but “My lover, my light, my destroyer, my meteorite.” It’s the least convincing part of the album; some of the lyrics sound platitudinous, and the orchestration renders the song as the album’s outlier when it could be a unifier, even as the saxophones try their best to offset the gooey, lighters-in-the-air arena sound. Instead, the album’s heart is the prequel to “Omakase”—“Betelgeuse,” whose spacious, candid vignette accomplishes more than “Omakase”’s grandiose, gushy arrangement.

Sandra: “I just read that there was an asteroid the size of a skyscraper that, on Saturday night, went between the moon and the Earth.”

Cassandra: “Did we see it?”

Sandra:Somebody did.”

You could interpret “somebody did” as a truncation of “seeing isn’t always believing”—a suggestion that sometimes the magic is in what you don’t see, what’s just outside of frame. After Sandra mic-drops this revelation, we’re left in quiet contemplation—the piano and saxophone happily meandering around in the fading light. At that moment, the listener is Cassandra Jenkins—we are brought impossibly close, learning once again from the woman who told us, “Baby, go to the ocean.” Or, alternatively, if I’m reading far too much into it, at least it’s a reminder to keep your chin up and listen to your mother.

Hadyen Merrick is a music writer from Brighton, UK. He contributes to Bandcamp, FLOOD, Pitchfork, Loud and Quiet and others, and was previously associate music editor for the cultural criticism site PopMatters. Please talk to him about music and let him on your podcast: @HaydenMerrick96

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin