Man, I miss Iris DeMent. Ever since she decided making guest appearances on other artists’ albums proved more satisfying than recording her own, few have been able to wrestle with the big questions of belonging, home and identity with as much grace (and as little pretense) as she once did.
Kate Jacobs, now on her fourth release, has always been a somewhat improbable applicant for DeMent’s slot in the Americana pantheon. Her girlish soprano and stoic sentimentality have always been the defining elements of her work, and even if she has yet to combine them in such definitively dynamic ways as the greatest voices in her line of work, her deep humility, clever tunefulness and emotional directness have always hinted that she has a great album in her. On You Call That Dark, Jacobs delivers her masterstroke.
Preternaturally consumed with the longing for a world (and a way of life) that seems to be slipping away, these 13 tracks cut a deep swath to the heart of loss, told through the stories of those most deeply affected. To that extent, the noble, quiet dignity she invests in her idealized cast of characters becomes the album’s defining quality.
We’re introduced to Helen, the elderly subject of “Helen Has a House,” a hymn-like ode to a woman watching her grip loosen on her way of life while reassuring others to worry for themselves. And there’s Pete, the protagonist of the sing-songy, tear-jerking “Pete’s Gonna Sell,” the story of a family farm going under. Further, “What a World, What a God”—a tasteful guitar-and-mandolin duet telling the story of an elderly immigrant who refuses pain medication while dying in a hospital, to save his family from bankruptcy—continues the succession of tragic dramas. Still, the story of this album is far from being just that of heartbreak and loss.
Full of open, warmly organic textures and song structures full of little twists and unexpected melodic hitches, Jacobs’ considerable pop acumen keeps things from growing as dire as they seem. From the full-sounding organ and 12-string guitar that form the rich tapestry of opener “Your Big Sister,” to the banjo and clarinet that close the Shakespeare-penned “That Time of Year,” the generally effervescent folk-pop arrangements serve to ensure that the album’s mood never becomes too heavy-handed. The Rubber Soul-ish pop and multi-part harmonies of “Let Dusty Be Your Guide” are so lushly and effectively arranged that you hardly notice it’s one of the most distressed break-up songs ever put to tape. And the prancing piano lines and softly falling melodies of “Tall Buildings” mask a claustrophobic lament for the encroachment of development into rural life. And while, on the surface, these songs are almost crushingly sad, the brave resilience with which Jacobs imbues them becomes the album’s most resonant theme.
You Call That Dark is an unlikely concept album, humble enough in its execution that such a designation would cheapen its intent. A detailed reading will show that no song is without its glimmer of hope, however fleeting. The resounding message is one of finding meaning in the subtle details of existence, appreciating every simple pleasure, living in the moment. Jacobs faces mortality without succumbing to fear; she encounters pain without turning morose; she retains her humanity without turning cynical or defiant; and she finds beauty in the face of loss.