The hardest thing to reconcile about experiencing grief is that it’s nonlinear. It lurks in corners, an ever-present shadow threatening to become horribly tangible at any instant. The unpredictability is disorienting; it’s tough to know which stage you’re in until you’re able to unclench your jaw—even for just a second. Listening to Jacob Allen grapple with grief is achingly familiar: He’s stunned by its sharp edges and, at times, accepting of its presence; but mostly, he’s utterly dismantled by its relentlessness. On Holy Waters, Allen’s sophomore release under the name Puma Blue, the Atlanta-by-way-of-South London songwriter builds intricate compositions to try and contain these overwhelming feelings. It’s a stark and powerful record, one that arrives as gorgeous as it is heartrending.
Puma Blue’s first two EPs—Only Trying to Tell You and Blood Loss—were surprisingly accomplished bedroom recordings that felt cozy and inviting, both full of charming lo-fi R&B. Allen widened the scope for his 2021 debut, In Praise of Shadows, expanding his approach slightly while keeping the haziness intact. Shadows, a beguiling mix of chill-beats drum programming, Sade-inspired quiet storm and a smattering of light-jazz flourishes, was an intimate exploration of insomnia and the derealization that it can produce. Its beautiful sounds, especially Allen’s delicate falsetto, conceal a crushing despondency like a tasteful silken robe.
Holy Waters is an even greater expansion of the Puma Blue idea, amplifying all the elements that made Shadows such a captivating first listen two years ago. Allen still sings in whispery tones; the drums are either close-mic’d or made from muffled, clunking samples. For minutes at a time, he keeps instruments from sharing the same space; he’ll often start with just his voice and percussion or bass, letting an element drop off before adding another. He leaves in tiny, seams-showing moments—like sniffling between vocal takes or the sound of rain outside of the studio, creating a world that feels two inches away. But, despite the near-voyeuristic intimacy Allen cultivates, Holy Waters is much more ambitious than anything he’s done previously. The arrangements are bigger, bolder and more dynamic. Almost every song follows a similar formula: start small and quiet but slowly accumulate subtle layers of instrumentation and effects, eventually whipping into a rapturous swirl.
The bad-trip psychedelia of “Hounds” follows a repeating bassline and motorik drum pattern into oblivion: A skronking saxophone consumes Allen’s vocals as he wails “And I find myself alone again,” eventually giving way to a searing feedback squall. “Gates (Wait For Me)” spends its first three minutes turning the downbeats of its groove into massive columns of guitar chords and vocal harmonies, its second half dissolving into loose, atmospheric jazz. Though Allen constructs these pieces into towering walls of sound, he never puts a distance between himself and the listener. In fact, the opposite happens; the larger a song becomes, the further we’re drawn into his world.
There’s a majesty to these compositions, a mesmeric attention to detail. On “Pretty,” the album’s closest approximation of a “happy” number, a slightly serrated synth briefly doubles Allen’s falsetto, giving his plaintive croon an uncanny valley tinge. It’s hard to not get chills when, in the second chorus of “Too Much, Too Much,” Allen sings “Maybe it’s just all too much / to see it all turn to dust” an octave higher than before. As he repeats that mantra, he and his band enter an In Rainbows-style outro: all guitars shining, all percussion shuffling.
The album’s midpoint, “Epitaph,” feels like a welcomed release valve after the sustained tension of the first five tracks. It’s the most stripped-down composition on the record, a simple time-keeping bass guitar grounding Allen’s chorused vocals and smoke-plume pads. Here, Holy Waters takes a much dreamier path, unfolding like a continuous sigh and losing a little bit of steam in the process. Though Allen and company don’t reach the same consistently breathtaking highs in the album’s back half, they still create some dazzling moments—like the rippling synthesizer sequences low in the mix of “Light Is Gone,” or the cumulus cloud harmonies that billow throughout “Dream of You.” It’s a darkly hypnotic collection, swooning and seductive, nearly impossible to tear yourself away from. There’s a smoldering power bolstering these delicate songs; Holy Waters is as vulnerable as eye contact, as exquisitely cathartic as a scream into the void.
Revisit Puma Blue’s Paste studio session from 2019 below.
Dash Lewis is a writer and musician based in Richmond, VA with bylines at Pitchfork, SPIN, Bandcamp and more. When not noodling with synthesizers, he’s in search of a great sandwich. Find him online @gardenerjams.