Wednesday, October 11, 2017

album review: 'all i ever see in you is me' by jillette johnson

So after the last album review I feel something needs to be clarified, namely with respect to the folks supporting me and voting on my schedule on Patreon - and a lot of it is gratitude. Seriously, with YouTube demonetizing the majority of my videos the second they go up, you guys have been a life saver, and you've introduced me to music that I would never have covered otherwise. Some bad - I'm not sure I'll ever forgive you guys for AJR - but a ton of it good.

And as such, given the rather peculiar state my schedule is in right now, I think it's time we handle some old business and review a record that took a long time to get to the top - and yet if I had done my homework I would have been pushing this months ago. For the majority of you who do not know, Jillette Johnson is a New York singer-songwriter who has been attracting comparisons to Fiona Apple, but really her style and instrumentation reminds me more of a split between Feist's personality, Regina Spektor's hyper-detailed writing, Florence Welch's power, and Vienna Teng's knack for slightly off-kilter indie pop production that could lead to phenomenal hooks all the same. Her debut album Water In A Whale came out in 2013 and my god, it is something special, full of the sort of indie pop that throws in enough left turns to keep you intrigued and enough bombast and creativity to suck you in. It's a terrific debut and it makes all the more sense why she actually turned down an offer to go on The Voice so she could focus on her career - she's a far more intriguing artist than what that show would have her do. In any case, she dropped a sophomore album in mid-July, and if it's anything like her debut I was definitely excited to see where this would fit. So, what did we get?

Hmm... you know, I don't think I should be surprised by this, but there's a part of me that is. Because All I Ever See In You Is Me is the sort of sophomore advancement that makes sense: more refined and supported by a personal favourite producer of mine, tighter construction, more emotionally expressive performance, solid underlying theme, this should be a natural step forward for Jillette Johnson... and yet I find myself oddly underwhelmed by this. I mean, it's solid, it's enjoyable in a low-key sort of way, but I have the sinking feeling that Johnson settled into a comfort zone on this record that sadly just isn't as interesting or vibrant as her debut.

So how does this happen? Well, I wish there was a simple answer, but let's start with the easiest area to examine and quantify: the songwriting and themes. Now if you're expecting some of the wilder imagery that characterized parts of Water In A Whale... well, you get mentions of a robot army on the opening track 'Bunny' but that isn't really a norm, as most of the writing opts for relatively straightforward relationship drama, from the breakup moments of 'I'm Sorry' and 'Thumbelina' - the latter really which ends the album on a sour note, it should have been placed earlier in the track listing - to staving off breakups waiting in the wings on 'Not Tonight' and 'In Repair'. But where this record gets interesting is in the framing of these stories, because the title of this album isn't kidding about the larger theme: self-perception. A great many of these tracks focus on not just the drama of the scene but how others' emotions reflect on Johnson's own feelings of self-worth and angst - and as much as she doesn't want this to be the case she's also aware it's not something she can really avoid. And what's telling is that she's keenly aware of the positives and negatives in this, between 'Bunny's implications of how record executives get artists to sell their integrity and the possessive nature of her partner on 'Thumbelina' she has to actively buck against... but on the flip side there's 'Throw Out Your Mirror', in how just through seeing herself as her friends see her she can get out of her own head. But what I like most comes in the two best tracks, 'Love Is Blind' and the title track, because in the first case she's the disinterested party as an ex is actively pursuing her to restore the past, and it makes her nervous because there might be enough within her to buck the mature thought that they can't go back, and in the title track... well, she sees family and partner and she knows what they could do better or what could change... only for it to reflect back on her. I love she has the self-awareness to realize and recognize its poignancy, and how it humanizes this record so damn well... but as much as I admire this framing, it's not really as gripping as her more colorful work before.

But why not, it's not like it couldn't be, right? Well, that takes us to the production and instrumentation, the former handled by producer favourite of mine Dave Cobb, who brings his typical rich organic warmth to the tones on this record with supple basslines, amazingly well micced drums, and hints of guitar, mellotron and arranged strings to support the main melodies on the piano. It's burnished, it's well-textured and mature and tasteful, it reminds me a lot of similar tones Cobb has given many other singer-songwriters in alternative country... but that, on some level, might be part of the issue. For one, the tones here feel more natural for slower tempos, which means the hooks here don't pick up the same dramatic momentum or power... which is something you could also say about the vocal arrangements, where the multi-tracking is sparse and while Johnson is giving a potent performance, it feels like she has less support than ever in these mixes. And yeah, that might intensify feelings of isolation which can fit for some of these introspective ballads, but it also means any expected sense of bombast is neutered. And yeah, it fits the more tasteful nature of the writing, but it doesn't help the idiosyncrasies that gave Johnson so much personality stand out in comparison. Hell, there's a part of me that just thinks this feels safe, and while we do get some potent moments - the darker liquid melancholy in the tones behind 'Love Is Blind', phenomenal drum texture on 'Throw Out Your Mirror', some beautiful arranged swell on the title track and 'Not Tonight' - I have the feeling they would compliment writing that opted for more intricacy or subtlety, whereas with Johnson more of that is conveyed through delivery than her words.

But as a whole... look, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed by this, even while I will say it's good. I think part of it is coming off of the creative high of her debut with its hooks and more distinct writing style that stepping in this direction... again, it feels safe, not quite having the same color of flair. It's certainly listenable and tasteful and there's a thematic core I like and respect, but the overall sound doesn't push it past that for me, which means I'm giving it a very solid 7/10 and a recommendation, but i'd say you should all check out her debut Water In a Whale first. Otherwise... eh, it's more on the indie-leaning singer-songwriter side more than alternative country, but still worth a look regardless - check it out.

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