Into the quietude: a review of Jessica Pratt’s “Quiet Signs”

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Rating: 8.7/10

Is Jessica Pratt from the same time, the same place as the rest of us? Such is the impression one gets from her songs. In a world of overblown pop and insatiable rhythm, it can seem uncanny, or merely mystifying, to hear a singer-songwriter that seems to have appeared from another age, one obsessed with the exaltations of quietude and the space in between the notes.

This idea, this concept of serene repose, permeates all of Pratt’s music, and is a feeling she has curated into her most refined album yet: “Quiet Signs.”

Listening to her otherworldly croon bounce around my room, I finally understand what makes her sound as if she doesn’t belong on this planet. Her sound, built on the foundation of this quietude, is in its essence one or two degrees removed from the fast-paced world we live in. In this world art and aesthetics are a tangible reality, not just the idealistic flights of artistic-minded folks, doomed to be unappreciated and ignored by the rest of the world. In Pratt’s creations, the subtlety and transcendence of personal experience are finally placed on the highest altar of experience.

The video for “This Time Around” serves as a fitting visual aid to the sounds of “Quiet Signs.” As much as her music summons forth the past sounds of Laurel Canyon folkies or beach poets trading verses on the California coast, the video reinforces and strengthens her own hold on this particular aesthetic. When sound and image coalesce, an artist is one step closer to embodying these feelings in their fans, something that Pratt has managed to do extremely well.

Though the video seems spontaneous and guileless in its presentation, the images we see are actually an integral part of the mythos of Pratt’s music: Grainy, film-reel portraits of Pratt wandering around sun-soaked fields or gaudi churches; her silhouette in front of warm beach; or a kaleidoscope distorting the pinks and blues of an ocean sunset scene. The fact that she’s alone, and journeying around the artifice of her own world, is key here. This isolation, at first casually sensed in the music, is magnified and distorted a thousand times like some cosmic kaleidoscope.

To get a better sense of this isolation, this aloneness, we can take a deeper look into the music in “This Time Around.” Mostly a mix of guitar and vocals, Pratt leaves plenty of silent space in between the notes, more than most modern artists would be comfortable with. This silence, at first permeable and then refreshing, allows her vocals, soaked in spectral reverb, to take center stage. You realize that the sparing mix is not something missing, but actually an integral part of the whole puzzle. When a soft synth appears far off the background, it’s affect is heightened by that silence, a quietude that gives the instruments that do appear increased weight.

“Quiet Signs,” as Pratt’s third album, is both an affirmation and realization of her commitment to her serene style. Many artists in her position (gaining recognition, poised with resources to make an album) have given in to the temptation to add lavishly to their music, to layer on new instruments and styles they’ve always wanted to try or which are currently popular. This sound upgrade isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though for certain artists it has proven to be their undoing. For Pratt, I can’t imagine a world where she went in that direction, surrounded by session musicians and producers, because the beautiful album we now have in front of us is the result of the opposite – extended and self-imposed isolation.

Pratt has made good use of her isolation. What she has pulled out of her aloneness is an intense attention to detail and songs that delight in nuance and obfuscation. If thoughts and dreams and ideas are fragmentary, Pratt has done the hard work of digging into the workings of the brain and, like a patient scientist, alchemizing them into different forms. Part of this is the careful attention she has paid to her dreams, as she pointed out in an interview with Pitchfork:

“I’ve always kept a dream journal, and just based on whatever you were going through at the time, you can look back and see these points of focus that you were processing. I think songwriting is similar. These things bubble up, you know—words just come out from your brain!”

Now, after three albums she has distilled her sound into something nothing short of transcendental. Songs like “Poly Blue” and “Fare Thee Well” glimmer and sway with Pratt’s idiosyncratic magic of singing. Here melodies, though mystically familiar, are also all her own, like fragments of those dreams she has so meticulously recorded in her journal. And when her harmonies come in at unexpected times, like a warm wind at the end of a long winter, it really is the most pleasant thing.

It isn’t a frustrated isolation that we find here, though, because Pratt’s music suggests a broader embracing of her inward nature, one that experiences an acute, personal beauty in the world that surrounds her. When it comes to other people, though, there is something of a disconnect, a distance, and that is where the music flows from. That distance in between ourselves and the world is where we experience the sublime, a sense that Pratt seems to have cultivated patiently over time.

To pick a favorite track from this album is somewhat difficult, mostly because this is an album best experienced whole. It is also the result of Jessica Pratt’s particular cohesiveness as a songwriter. Every song seems to flow into the next as if each track was a babbling brook cascading into each other, at once different but mysteriously the same. “Quiet Signs” is an album best experienced whole, letting its sounds ring out in the silence of the night.

 

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