It took me three background listens through Julia Jacklin’s new album Crushing before I decided to look up the lyrics and realised it’s one of the best collections of breakup lyrics that’s been released in recent years. Innovative and personal, I found ten songs’ worth of cleverly written personal lines and a potentially fantastic album. The reason I had not discovered this during the first three listens was that the album was played 'in the background'... Well, it just did not sound that interesting. If I had not read the lyrics, I might have easily overlooked its particular brilliance, as they were often obscured behind unmemorable melodies and vaguely generic musical backing.
Simplicity is fine... but the cleanly-produced blend of mid-tempo drums and gently-strummed electric guitars was just too vague and lacking in personality.
After my newfound appreciation for Jacklin’s writing (and a few further listens), I found a better album than I had heard the first few times around. Even an enjoyable one. But not a great one. As far as pieces of music go, Crushing was certainly not as great an album as it could have been if Jacklin had spent as much time crafting her music as she did her words.
Simplicity is fine (most of the songs here revolve around typical two-or-three-chord progressions, and the Australian singer certainly isn’t the first songwriter to back her words with basic strumming) but the cleanly-produced blend of mid-tempo drums and gently strummed electric guitars was just too vague, and lacking in personality. It would be okay for some artists, but it does Jacklin’s writing a disservice.
However, lots of tracks on the album are good songs... particularly together, as the songs all revolve very strongly around the same themes, almost to the point of a concept album. Crushing is all about breakups, or perhaps a single breakup in gut-wrenching detail. It’s also largely about Jacklin’s body, what it means in the politics of a relationship ending, and its relationship with herself and others. It’s the medium through which she experiences the world, and it reflects her breakup - “Can’t stand the pain from these shoes that I’ve outgrown” she sings wearily in Convention.
The first song, simply Body, is a great opener, musically and thematically. It is unflashy and direct with a simple plodding drumbeat and barely-strummed electric guitar, but also with an underlying sense of building danger, of brooding, setting up the emotional chaos of the album to follow. Lyrically it drops the listener off in the middle of a fantastically visual scene - “I know you'd like to believe it, baby/But you're more kid than criminal/Just a boy who could not get through a domestic flight/Without lighting up in the restroom”. Jacklin’s voice is great and nicely up-front in the mix. However, her slurred hazy syllables, while great-sounding, do have the effect of making many of the lyrics blend into a background haze, which becomes quite a problem throughout the album considering they are its strongest element.
Head Alone continues a focus on her body’s relation to herself - “I don't want to be touched all the time/I raised my body up to be mine...So I'll say it 'til he understands/You can love somebody without using your hands”. The song is the first of several rather uninteresting upbeat songs, lacking in any striking musical feature. Next track Pressure To Party is another such song, uptempo and bouncy but lacking energy or impact. Jacklin’s great lines are still in there though (“I know where you live, I used to live there too”.)
Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You shows that Jacklin succeeds musically and melodically more in her gentler moments. After two flat-falling bits of indie-rock, the melancholy ballad with its simple titular refrain sounds like a classic piece of songwriting and boasts a lovely melody - the album’s first with staying power. Maybe coincidentally or maybe not, it’s also one of the simplest lyrics, stripping away the fantastic details and images of most of the songs and going for the unashamedly direct - “Don’t know how to keep loving you/Now that I know you so well”. As in many songs, she shows a knack for bringing out the often-overlooked details of relationships ending - here, “I want your mother to stay friends with mine”. And her body is her central image once again - “What if I worked on my skin?/I could scrub until I am red”.
When The Family Flies In makes it two great ballads in a row. This time it’s just Jacklin and some sombre grey piano. Again, it’s the details surrounding a breakup that Jacklin hones in on so effectively, especially in the fantastic harmonised chorus - “You know it's bad when the family flies in/Just to stand by your side”.
The rest of the album doesn’t reach the same success, but some of it is nice enough. Convention is another sparse, weary ballad, this time with only acoustic guitar and some nice Joni-esque details (“Do you really wanna give him the microphone/You know that he'll keep talking long after everyone's gone home/We'll have to pay to keep the lights on/And that bill will arrive just when all our savings have gone”.) Good Guy has a beautiful melody and vocal performance, with an exhausted late-night feeling. You Were Right is another energetic rocker that doesn’t achieve any musical impact besides adding a break in tone (or shattering the mood, whichever way you want to look at it.) It’s almost worth it for Jacklin’s most scathing lines though - “Started listening to your favourite band/The night I stopped listening to you”. Turn Me Down is featureless and forgettable, while the stark acoustic Comfort does a good job of wrapping up the romantic mess with an “everything goes on” message.
Yet no matter how much I try, Crushing does not excite me. It pleases me, in a factual this-is-good-writing kind of way, but I wish the strong personality in the lyrics could be complemented by music with equal personality, rather than diluted by music with none.
Julia Jacklin has so many fantastic things to say. It says a lot about her talent when all ten of the songs on the album are completely lyrically different and come from different unique angles, while all addressing the same situation. Her sly observations and way of showing a point through unique imagery make her a truly exciting writer. Yet no matter how much I try, Crushing does not excite me. It pleases me, in a factual this-is-good-writing kind of way, but I wish the strong personality in the lyrics could be complemented by music with equal personality, rather than diluted by music with none. Still, it’s clear that Jacklin’s formidable lyrical talent isn’t going to disappear any time soon, so the potential for something great on the horizon is very, very real.
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Released: 22 Feb 2019