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Care/Taking (Tender Loving Empire)

IT’S FASCINATING WATCHING Jess Cornelius move in and out of, and sometimes dancing with, art and pop without ever losing the sense of someone who hasn’t noticed where she is. Or, maybe more accurately, doesn’t care where she is.

There is about her work the craft of something studied, of songs built up and songs logically expanded: solidly written, intelligently produced, thematically aligned.  And yet also there is the touch of naturalness, of ideas not restricted and ideas not afraid: effective in their imagery, open in their emotions. It is a heady brew that can just land an artist in some kind of muddled middle, suggesting they don’t know where they are going or who they are, but when done well, as most of this second album from the LA-based songwriter is, it begins to feel like an obvious state for any smart artist.

The never-quite-agitated indie rock of Laps In The Drugstore and People Move On – drums on the upswing; guitars pushing as much as pulling; bass nimble; vocals pitched forward – are vigorous arguments for Cornelius as a ‘90s reincarnation owing a bit more to Boston than the Pacific Northwest. Their appearances on the album at first seem haphazard, a jolting interference in what seems to be a pattern of more internalised, moody tracks. But continued listening suggests less of a plan than an indifference to the idea of pattern or continuity.

If Dying finds beauty in the blending of the euphoric and the funereal in a contained space, and Desire glides with complex sensuality, To The Desert reverberates out from guitar, Cornelius talking her way into a sonic back room of very Cure synths and militaristic snare, Banshees’ curling backwards bass and the low ceiling atmosphere of one or other Manchester outfit.  Tui Is A Bird (The Work) cruises in the dark like some long-bodied sedan, the voice perpetually hovering behind the wheel, but it is punctuated by a child’s voice, sprinkled sounds and a piano whose confidence belies the night shade.

The Surgeon is quasi-Victorian, vocally and musically in high collars and widow’s weeds at the beginning, then leaning into a brass revival with the buoyancy of a spiritualist’s meeting. It’s as if the spectral solidifies just enough to be believed as something other than horror. Back To The Mainland on the other hand blends French stylings, at times equal parts Air and Françoise Hardy, with its airy sombreness and growing thickness of sound that removes doubt.

If the music displays a frankness, it is nothing on the lyrics. Cornelius details the wavering line between wants and retribution, self-loathing and the glories of finding value in the selfless, urgent desire and deliciously destabilising love. She explores the way relationships end in bits and pieces rather than something clean and sharp, how death guts everything and detaches you from yourself but in some of the same ways so does new life, and why simply doing, even without obvious purpose, might be an antidote to succumbing to dread.

And even in the relatively slight Cloud Postcard, a kind of apology and explanation to a family that’s watched her move from New Zealand to Australia to the USA, she navigates guilt and confidence, support and sorrow. Her explanation contains meaning and the inexplicable, which like art and pop, like the multiple meanings of the album title, Care/Taking, hold equal sway.




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