Sarah Jaffe’s THE BODY WINS
by Weston Cutter
I was lucky enough to hear Sarah Jaffe early on—winter of ’10 or so—and was even luckier to be able to be among the maybe two dozen folks who got mesmerized by her in ’10 or ’11 in Omaha’s The Waiting Room Lounge—the woman was up there with an acoustic guitar, spare accompaniment, and her voice was so many forks of lightning through that night—I can still, if I work at, recall how “Vulnerable” (a song I wasn’t massively into or not into from her debut, Suburban Nature) sounded, made new with a thumpy percussive flourish. She ghosted with and spooked through her own songs that night, bringing bones to light I hadn’t necessarily heard before, and I remember feeling 100% thrilled with how she was doing things (which doesn’t have to be the case when an artist reworks his/her stuff, as anyone who has seen a weird Dylan show knows [yes, he's a genuis, and yes, I love him, but some of the workings of his songs at his shows are just odd]). What I’m trying to say is: the woman put on, when I saw her, not just a hell of a show, but a show which, had I been paying better attention, would’ve made clear what The Body Wins, her latest, has now made sharply, awesomely clear: Jaffe was pushing into and, I’d argue, through her own music, looking for new clues to chase.
For real: listen to the first track of Suburban Nature (the fantastic “Before You Go”) and the first of The Body Wins (“Paul”) back-to-back; we’re talking about a shift, a growth, that’s as significant as the leap Wilco made to YHF, or LCD Soundsystem from their first to second disc, or Radiohead. Sure, stuff stays the same: Jaffe’s voice is still among the most mighty and gorgeous sounds imaginable, simultaneously strong and almost wincingly tender, and yes, it’s still pop music—it’s not as if she’s suddenly channeling Bartok or something (I don’t know if pop music sounds derisive or anything; it’s certainly not intended—I don’t know what else to call good music anymore. What genre exists anymore?). But Jaffe’s made some phenomenal growth from her first to second LP (a growth all of us could behold as well when she dropped The Way Sound Leaves a Room, her EP from September of ’11). Here’s the video for “Glorified High”:
I want to make this clear, too: Jaffe’s musical growth is not, I don’t think, merely the result of finding new instruments, adding some synths—the equivalent of an instrument clothes-change or haircut. She seems to be trying to find a new way into her songs, with results that are electric (I can’t not think, always, of how Tweedy spoke in the movie I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, when he’s confronted post-solo-show at one point by record store dorks who ask about the rumors they’ve heard about the new Wilco disc, and Tweedy says they’re finding spaces in their music and letting it have more holes in it). Jaffe’s The Body Wins is ultimately a darker affair than SN, yet the album ultimately doesn’t feel darker so much as thicker, murkier (this may be because of songs like “Hooray For Love” and “Talk,” two songs which feature a ferocity entirely absent from SN (and songs which, it should be noted, are fundamentally unclear: in the case of the former, the minor-key dirge of the music clashes mightily against the statement of the lyrics; in the latter she sings “I’ve opened my mouth too many times / and now that I’m done talkin’ / here you come walking” [I'd like to note that it's real easy to mis-hear the first of those lines as I've broken my mouth too many times, and I'm actually sorry I cranked it + now have clarity]).
There’s plenty more, obviously, to say about this, but ultimately I’m only really capable of jumping up and down and huffing on and on about Jaffe. Here’s everything I could possibly say: I can think of maybe three or four bands or musicians whose work will automatically be stuff I check out, forever, no matter what. Radiohead’s in that camp, ditto Dylan, Westerberg, etc. There aren’t many, is the thing, and the musicians that are on that list, for me, are bands that’ve been around for a long time, have shown again and again an urge toward growth that basically assures me of something fresh, a new sonic view, even if I ultimately don’t like whatever direction they’re moving in. Sarah Jaffe’s now firmly on that list: I can think of no young musician this exciting, no one taking these sorts of interesting risks and trying so urgently to make her way as an artist. I’m almost embarrassed to use that word, artist—it’s fey and silly sounding, I suppose, or at least I fear it comes off that way. But for real: Jaffe’s an artist. She’s as mighty + rare as they come. Get on board.