“Nothing ever really disappears,” Cassandra Jenkins says. “It just changes shape.” Over the past few years, she’s seen relationships altered, travelled three continents, wandered through museums and parks, and recorded free-associative guided tours of her New York haunts. Her observations capture the humanity and nature around her, as well as thought patterns, memories, and attempts to be present while dealing with pain and loss. With a singular voice, Jenkins siphons these ideas into the ambient folk of her new album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature.
“The whole thing flows like an emotional breakthrough, tying together disparate observations into a serene and unified vision,” said Pitchfork, which gave the album Best New Music. NPR, in their coverage for New Music Friday, called it “so, so stunning.”
Jenkins, a veteran musician who’s played in the bands of Eleanor Friedberger, Craig Finn, Lola Kirke, and rehearsed to tour with Purple Mountains in August 2019 before the tour’s cancellation, spent months meticulously making her debut LP Play Till You Win. For Phenomenal Nature, she arrived at engineer Josh Kaufman’s (The National, The Hold Steady) studio with ideas rather than full songs – nevertheless, they finished the album in a week. Jenkins’ voice floats amid sensuous chamber pop arrangements and raw-edged drums, ferrying us through impressionistic portraits of friends and strangers. Her lyrics unfold magical worlds, introducing you to a cast of characters like a local fisherman, a psychic at a birthday party, and driving instructor of a spiritual bent. In their Rising feature on Jenkins, Pitchfork said: “The idea of decentering the self comes up again and again as a guiding principle… she acts as an ethnographer archiving quotidian sounds and conversations as much as a songwriter telling her own story.”
On album opener “Michelangelo,” before the heavy drum beat and fuzz guitars enter, Jenkins sings quietly “I’m a three-legged dog, working with what I’ve got / and part of me will always be looking for what I lost // there’s a fly around my head, waiting for the day I drop dead.” Phenomenal Nature thrives in this dichotomy between ornate sonics and verbal frankness, a calming guided tour to the edge. Later, on “Crosshairs,” amid lush strings, she sings conversationally: “Empty space is my escape / it runs through me like a river / while time spits in my face.”
“Hard Drive,” the third track and album centerpiece, opens with a voice memo Jenkins recorded at The Met Breuer: a guard muses about Mrinalini Mukherjee’s hybrid textile and sculpture works, which were then on display in a retrospective titled Phenomenal Nature. “When we lose our connection to nature, we lose our spirit, our humanity,” she explains. Stuart Bogie’s saxophone & Josh Kaufman’s glittering guitar make way for Jenkins’ spoken word which constellates scenes from her life, gradually building and blossoming as she recreates a meditation guided by a friend who incants, “One, two, three.”
Sounds of footsteps and bird calls run through the album’s glittering conclusion, “The Ramble.” Meditative and bright, it recalls how Jenkins felt while writing and recording her new material: “Everything else is falling apart, so let’s just enjoy this time,” she said. If Phenomenal Nature has a unifying theme, it’s the power of presence, the joy of walking in a world in constant flux and opening oneself to change.