Jolie Holland’s voice is a gorgeous, ancient thing, round and dulcet as Satchmo’s muted trumpet, distinct and self-assured like an antique bell in a church window. She churns out pre-war folk and blues with an offhand effortlessness (think Gillian Welch channeling Victoria Spivey) and lyrical turns that invite favorable comparisons to labelmates Nick Cave and Tom Waits. But the most remarkable thing about the Houston native’s latest, Escondida, is her uncanny ability to inhabit songs like a ghost, communicating a deep sense of resignation, as if she instinctively realizes no matter which path she chases this music down, they’re all tramped flat anyway. Capitulation hasn’t sounded this good since Muddy Waters sang “feelin’
mistreated, and I don’t mind dyin’.”
On the opening track, “Sascha,” Holland is a coquette on a cool evening stroll, cutting her eyes about and flirting, with a hurt in her voice belying not only the heartbreak she sings of, but also the darker turn to come. A bleak love ballad, “Black Stars,” gives the first indication we’re not in O Brother territory anymore. A line like “When you arrived / It was as if / We both had died” turns star-crossed romance into a suicide pact before the first ill-fated kiss. “Old Fashioned Morphine” is Blind Willie Johnson’s “Wade in the Water” and the gospel standard “Old Time Religion” knit together with a Burroughsian thread. Morphine, the anesthesia of last resort, replaces “religion” in a telling shift away from transcendence and hope.
It’s as if Holland set out in search of new pathways to follow, only to discover that hordes of Kerouac-wannabes had already turned those beckoning open roads into four-lane tollways lined with featureless strip malls. This claustrophobia wears off the museum-piece sheen plaguing modern purveyors of traditional music. The tragedy at the core of Escondida feels like it’s happening now, not at the arms-length tributary distance that even the most heartfelt rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow” seems incapable of bridging.
Ironically, it’s this collapsing hope which enables Holland to share space with the original doyens of the dead end, where freedom is deferred and emancipation gives way to 40 acres and a mule—the point of utter finitude. All filtered through the perspective of a white, suburban, female citizen of a strange, valueless century, Holland’s songs become fractured prayers to a hybridized God of the Christian South, the Void at the bottom of an existential crisis, and an abstract pantheistic deity of unknown origin.
“Goodbye California” is a suicide note, gospel rave-up and Zen meditation wrapped into one. The “I’ll Fly Away”-style chorus in praise of a nirvana-like “immaculate calm” is an odd conflation of worldviews that has to heard to be believed. Holland rejects both irony and nostalgia, but doesn’t know what to set in their place. She wraps the proceedings with the incredulous head-wagging of “Damn Shame” and a haunted take on the traditional “Faded Coat of Blue.”
Literate, spooky and utterly compelling, Escondida is not only an astonishing album, but the announcement of a singular, visionary talent.