Distance (Part Time Records)
There’s almost a grim certainty about the lives described in Jess Cornelius’ songs: time and distance undermining a future, relationship failures, premature ennui and most movingly, a miscarriage (“my body has a memory and it won’t forget”) - they all appear and look to settle in.
And in her low humming voice, one that can feel equal parts stern folk singer and a less weary and wasted arthouse balladeer, Cornelius sounds poised to give us the bad news without fanfare but without sweeteners either.
But there’s a reason why I said “almost”. It’s not just that Cornelius occasionally finds ways to lighten the mood, with either touches of humour – lyrical and musical - or a feeling of curiosity about the future, but that her songs carry their loads with an inherent confidence that elevates tempos, energy and intent.
The stories don’t change, don’t become easy, and Cornelius doesn’t contradict herself, but the shadows they cast are more complex, more open to interpretation, and she is happy for you to choose which fork to take.
That’s how Easy For No One can navigate its way through calm seas of almost romantic hue but bite into some bitterness about what we’re expected to want in our lives in lines such as “Oh I just can’t being/I keep wasting my time/On other things/Like thinking, should I get a better job/And maybe try to have a kid instead?/Some things get stuck in my head”.
And why Here Goes Nothing can sound like a girl group song by Goffin & King but played by a slowly warming up New Wave band, include incongruous but naggingly effective whistling, and have Cornelius deliver stinging lines with a dream-like delivery, and yet never feel like it’s fighting itself.
This may be a debut solo album for Cornelius but such confident balancing isn’t out of the blue, after a bunch of records with Teeth & Tongue and a bare-bones EP when she disbanded T&T (some of which reappears here) that showed her willingness to tread across style and tonal lines. Still, there are surprising moves here.
The slow drag of Street Haunting and the bruised rock of Love And Low Self Esteem, two tracks which bring to mind Anna Calvi, feel like the kind of songs to anchor a record, to at least start one – putting you in the room with a sense of grandeur.
But almost provocatively, Cornelius leaves them to last (choosing instead to slide into the room with the opening soul embers of Kitchen Floor), yet it makes sense because their heaviness – metaphoric but also sonic - confirming as you’re leaving the record that you’ve been knocked around a bit more than you realised.
After all, the after-effects of the distant star quietly haunting Born Again, and especially Body Memory - which begins with the brutal straightness of “When we met, I used to make you laugh/Then we lost the baby and it broke my heart/And I find it hard to be that funny now” and doesn’t get any easier - linger for a good long time.
The only reason you don’t notice their impact initially is the way the former’s lightly glistening harp and the latter’s slinky, low-pulsing downtown soul camouflage it. But you will feel it.