Cassandra Jenkins' 'An Overview on Phenomenal Nature' Is an Iridescent Folk-Jazz Odyssey
Published Feb 17, 2021Just as the sky pales to muted pink, a cluster of light appears suspended in air. Is it a trick of the eye, or have stars congregated on the shore? Cassandra Jenkins' An Overview on Phenomenal Nature lives in this moment — the real and not real, the second glance. It's a near-complete reimagining of the New York songwriter's sound; an iridescent folk-jazz odyssey dizzyingly rich with detail and craft. At only seven tracks, it feels as vast and accomplished as a record twice its length.
Thanks to Jenkins' unlayered vocals and immaculate production from Josh Kaufman, listening to An Overview on Phenomenal Nature feels incredibly intimate — the sounds, so precise and lovingly rendered, tickle the surface of the brain, a dance of small electrical pulses. Keys, saxophone, guitar and strings squiggle and blur like amoebas in perpetual mutation; it's a walk among the inexplicable flowers of Alex Garland's film Annihilation, a warped and diaphanous reality. Jenkins' writing transmutes as well, as the barrier between the individual and everyone else blurs to the point of disappearance. On "Crosshairs," she confides that, "In your eyes / I see the panoply / all the people inside me." Keyboards bubble, flutes spread like inching fungus, and a swell of meaning forms; we are pieces of everyone, and everything, around us.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is full of people, fragments of the heart: Warren, Hailey, Grey, Darryl, Perry, Michelangelo and Saint Germain, mothers and old friends, unnamed security guards and presidents. However, it's the spirit of the late David Berman, who died by suicide in August 2019, that appears most frequently. Prior to his death, Jenkins was set to play on his Purple Mountains tour — An Overview on Phenomenal Nature represents the sonic and psychic metamorphosis that took place in the wake of his departure.
And while the record isn't so much about Berman's death as it is mortality on a grander scale, some songs deal explicitly with his leaving. "New Bikini" finds Jenkins put up at a Norwegian seaside cabin, a place to mourn in solitude. She recounts repeated advice from family, friends and fishermen to let the cold water mend her wounds, casting a gentle side-eye to the idea of the ocean as a great, all-healing benevolence. But there's a sort of comfort in the belief too, a desperate urge to accept that maybe all you need to be okay is to get your blood moving — when a friend tells Jenkins that he's fallen sick again, she offers some advice: "Baby, let's get you to the ocean / everybody's saying it cures everything."
On the heartbreaking "Ambiguous Norway," Jenkins lands in Oslo, her now purposeless Purple Mountains tour outfit stuffed in her bag. As she struggles to make sense of the loss she's come to mourn, she feels something strange and familiar in the Norwegian air: "Farewell, Purple Mountains / I see a range of cumulus / the majesties transmutation / distant, ambiguous / The skies replace the land with air / no matter where I go / you're gone, you're everywhere." People never really go away, she seems to say. They just become something else.
Jenkins' winding writing is cerebral and referential, nearly every song capable of opening a Wikipedia rabbit hole. However, much like Norwegian art-pop virtuoso Jenny Hval, she works wonders in the place between heart and mind; her intellectualism is never overbearing, instead revealing a dedication to explaining the unexplainable. The centerpiece of the record, and the undeniable peak of Jenkins' work to date, is the mesmerizing spoken-word of "Hard Drive." In a song that has all the makings of a total misfire, she finds transcendence; a stirring meditation on grand ideas and small gestures, on healing and connectivity. By releasing such depth of feeling to histories, faiths, philosophies and conceptual frameworks, she joins in the shared language of those like Berman — the people who spent their life trying to figure it out.
Instrumental closer "The Ramble" floats away on seven minutes of shimmering drone, snippets of field recordings and Stuart Bogie's wandering saxophone, all the delicate songs that preceded finally giving way to shapeless expression. Named for the New York City parkland famed for both its birdwatching and cruising, the song softens decades of multifaceted history into a haze of sound and feeling — connection to nature, connection to bodies, hollow bones and migration patterns, development and discovery and clandestine sexuality. The essence of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is in that sticky mess of life and ideas; as histories stack atop histories, as birds fly and old friends come back in brand new shapes, existence becomes a mystifying knot. Somehow, for seven minutes and nine seconds, Jenkins manages to untangle it. (Ba Da Bing!)