About two-thirds of the way through the title track on her new album, Jess Williamson sings, “Yes, there’s a little magic in my hat / But I’m no sorceress.” Agree to disagree.
Williamson is, at the very least, bewitching on Sorceress, her fourth album. It’s a blend of folk and country, with a dash of psychedelic rock, that brings together the strongest elements of her previous work—all the hints and glimpses of something deeper musically, and vocally, that never felt completely explored—into a fully realized collection of 11 songs that are at once polished, precise and visceral. Williamson could not sound more in control, or less concerned about it. The effect is, well, enchanting as she breezes through tunes that pull you into the center of rich musical arrangements so unobtrusively that you’re sometimes not quite sure how you got there.
The musical emphasis shifts from song to song, with pedal steel guitar here or synthesizer string parts there, but Williamson’s voice—at once dusky and sweet—is a constant. She’s not an acrobatic vocalist, nor is she given to demonstrations of blow-out-the-back-wall power. She doesn’t need them, frankly. Williamson can sound breathy and ethereal, as she does on the gentle, dream-like “As the Birds Are,” or quietly indomitable, even when she’s expressing doubts or misgivings the way she does on opener “Smoke.”
The track begins with Williamson singing a line a cappella, before an acoustic guitar joins in with a terse rhythm part. Later, the song expands to include bass, drums and steel guitar that grow in intensity as the song progresses. For all her unspoken self-assurance, Williamson allows herself a moment of vulnerability in the bridge section, singing, “No one’s come this close to knowing me / Hit me with it easy if you’re gonna leave,” while bass and kick drum thrum beneath her.
“Smoke” isn’t the only standout on Sorceress. Williamson evokes the parched landscape and endless skies of the desert on “Wind on Tin” with layers of acoustic guitars and a firm beat propelling her voice as she sings about attending a memorial service in the middle of some dusty nowhere. Eddies of whining pedal steel swirl behind a burly lead guitar on the instrumental break as Williamson’s mind plays tricks on her: She’s hearing angels sing, or maybe God. “Or is that what the wind / Out here does on tin?” she wonders.
Sorceress is full of such mystical touches, with references throughout to spirituality and the occult. Really, though, those subjects are lenses through which Williamson peers at cultural notions of womanhood as she considers birth, fertility, aging and death. “A woman goes through phases and a woman goes alone / I can’t quite explain it cause I don’t always know,” she sings on album closer “Gulf of Mexico,” layers of vocal harmony piercing through drifting layers of synthesizers and guitars. Like so much of Sorceress, there’s a lot happening here beneath the surface, and the narrator’s examination of a woman’s phases includes deciding she’s finished with the one that includes cavorting drunk and naked on a beach. “I’d rather be at home,” Williamson sings.
Home is a powerful lure here. There’s interpersonal combustibility inside her house on “Smoke,” a plea to put on a pot of coffee and a favorite record after a dust-up on the delicate, quavering “Love’s Not Hard to Find,” and a woman detained while seeking a safer, more secure place to raise her children on the other side of a fortified line on the pointed, swift-flowing “Rosaries at the Border.” They’re part of Williamson’s wide-ranging, yet tightly focused perspective on Sorceress. Managing that kind of balancing act is tricky enough. Channeling it into songs as tuneful and compelling as the ones on Sorceress is certainly the result of hard work and no small amount of skill, but it sure looks like magic.
Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013, and writing about music and pop culture for longer than he cares to admit. Follow him on Twitter or visit his website.