Jessie baylin 2015
Some singers can create a mood far before the first syllables of lyric have been woven into a full story; a tone, mixed to dissolve perfectly into music, can say it all. Such is the case with Jessie Baylin, whose ethereal voice shoots the opening notes of Dark Place, her fourth album, into instant emotive territory – it envelops in a mysterious gauze, setting the stage for what is her most raw, personal work yet and also her most thrilling.
Baylin’s always been adept at capturing the fragile, complex state of human relationships with a hand that understands the middle ground – things aren’t always what they seem, and she isn’t afraid to play in that treacherous territory. She often weaves a forlorn lyric with an optimistic vocal lick, or a cheerier song with a foreboding crunch of guitar, looming like a distant thunderstorm; it sometimes makes it difficult to tell if a track is innately happy or sad, but that’s the point. Dark Place is the epitome of this dichotomy. After giving birth to her first child, she was as aware of both the light and the dark that comes with parenthood, the restless emotion that comes from a deep, nearly panicked love. And she was especially aware that a shifting tide doesn’t completely sweep away the past, either.
”It was an extremely vulnerable place I went to, to write this album,” Baylin says, “but it felt true, so I embraced it. You don’t know what having a child is going to be like, and you realize there are a lot of ugly truths. Making this record helped me release all that; to send a message to my daughter that there is a space where fear and jealousy and darkness live.”
Once again pairing with Richard Swift as producer and writing partner, Baylin recorded Dark Place at Swift’s National Freedom studio in Cottage Grove, OR over a slew of stirringly prolific days—a characteristic that has come to define the duo’s collaborative process. Earlier in Nashville, in one burst, they wrote five of the songs in only four hours. “We feel this energy and chemistry and things happened really quickly,” she says. “Richard was the first person that ever really saw me as me. He’s never wanted to change anything and that means a lot to me.”
It’s the combination of elements on Dark Place that make it such a rattling look into not only Baylin’s mind but the human condition: her voice, in its other-worldly tone that can be both angelic and deeply plaintive, cuts through poetic lyrics with throbbing guitars that carve scratches at the beautiful surface, bounding free of both classification and genre. She’s Nico, if she could sing like Nina Simone; she’s Dusty Springfield fronting Mazzy Star. “Dusty,” she says, before adding, “on Quaaludes.”
The opening track and first single, “Creepers (Young Love),” sets the stage for the album’s journey: mischievous, fuzzy guitars play push pull with breathy vocals; the lights dim; the curtains close and get ready for confession. “Young love whispers and it’s calling my name,” Baylin sings. It’s about a past even the best of us can’t escape. “It’s a little bit of a punch in the face,” she says, “but I wanted it to be that way. Richard and I felt like we were doing something really true to us, not thinking about what anyone else was going to think. And there is always someone you have a strange and dangerous attraction to. We all have a hometown, so we all have a creeper.”
Baylin’s creative partnership with Swift began on the Pleasure Center EP in 2011 and 2012’s LP Little Spark, which received wide critical acclaim. “Often it’s the first take we use,” she says on their symbiosis, “and we don’t really think too much about it. We work fast and keep it as live as possible.” On Dark Place, this is expressed through loose, fascinating swirls of musical composition that hold together a cohesive story, with echoes of everything from the Cocteau Twins to Love and late Beatles; from Todd Rundgren to Linda Perhacs and Beach House; exposing the shadows that lurk behind all of our brightest corners. On motherhood, marriage, on the dangerous freedom of adulthood.
Dark Place is a brave album that breaks bad news with the sweetest of sugar, like “Kiss Your Face,” which is about “loving something so much that you think of it dying,” Baylin confesses, adding, “which I know is totally screwed up.” But take a moment to think, and it’s easy to realize we’ve all felt this way – we’ve all sought forgiveness like on “Black Blood,” but set to a psychedelic pop beat, it’s clear that black blood’s not so black and white. It never is. Like the title track, which was the first song written for Baylin’s young daughter: echoing, deep vocals that meet in a special place between Brill Building orchestrals and modern tones, exposing both the shrouded fears and enormous, pervasive love of parenthood. Of any great love, really.
“It’s an after-hours record, where darkness envelops and secrets are being told,” Baylin says. Because it’s only then, as the mood and the music expose our finest cracks, that light is really able to beam through.
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