Have you ever felt the urge to cry but the tears just won’t come? Maybe you don’t even feel sad, just in need of a good release?
The first time I listened to Cassandra Jenkins’s An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, I found warm tears rolling down my cheeks as the final song faded out, not so much a sad cry as it was a meditative one. The Brooklyn musician’s latest album has that emotional effect, poetically tackling pain and the past with introspective intimacy.
With seven tracks and a runtime of just over 30 minutes, Jenkins intertwines encounters with strangers and other snippets of time into a beautifully brief work of art. Jenkins, who completed the album in a week with producer and instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, solidifies her place in folk-pop with misty, amber vocals and tender lyricism.
On the opener, “Michelangelo,” Jenkins croons, “I’m Michaelangelo / And I carve myself out of marble / When I don’t know how to grow / Flowers out of arrows.” She speaks to our ceaseless desire to turn pain into beauty and how easily we can get lost in this impulse.
On the following track, “New Bikini,” we see glimmerings of Phenomenal Nature’s exploration of nature and the human spirit. Jenkins sings on the chorus, “Baby, go get in the ocean / If you’re bruised or scraped / Or any kind of broken / The water, it cures everything.” The song ebbs and flows like the tides between melancholy and consolation, adorned with airy saxophone and the slinky rumble of drums. Among the turmoil we experience every day, Jenkins reminds us that there is an undeniable healing power in nature and solitude.
One of the most gorgeously-crafted tracks on Phenomenal Nature is “Hard Drive,” which Jenkins describes as “part travel diary and part spiritual character study, weaving together encounters with a security guard at the Met Breuer, a bookkeeper in Topanga Canyon, my New York City driving instructor, and a psychic at a birthday party.”
The song’s intro features an audio clip of the aforementioned security guard, who ponders the artwork on display at Mrinalini Mukherjee’s retrospective “Phenomenal Nature” and states, “When we lose our connection to nature, we lose our spirit, our humanity, our sense of self.” Again, we are reminded of the restorative power of the natural world, how it grounds us and keeps our souls alive. Jenkins’s skillful storytelling manifests itself on “Hard Drive,” as she transitions seamlessly from spoken word to melody, painting vivid pictures of the cast of characters she has come across in her wanderings. We can clearly visualize the pink lipstick-clad museum employee with her thick Queens accent and the gemstone-eyed psychic like they’re a part of our own history too.
On “Ambiguous Norway,” Jenkins grapples with the tragic suicide of musician David Berman, frontman of the indie rock band Silver Jews. Berman emerged from a 10-year musical hiatus in 2019, playing under the new moniker Purple Mountains and was set to tour with Jenkins the same year. She pays homage to this lost friend on “Ambiguous Norway,” singing, “You’re gone, you’re everywhere / Everywhere / Farewell Purplе Mountains / I see a range of cumulous / The majesty’s transmutation / Distant, ambiguous.” Jenkins reflects on the trials of managing unexpected and heartbreaking change, with its cunning ability to cloud our sense of reality and stick with us far past initial materialization. The track feels therapeutic, chronicling the difficult yet necessary first steps of making peace with loss.
As if rising from the ashes, Phenomenal Nature’s closing instrumental track, “The Ramble,” is a sigh of relief. Its ethereal synths reverberate and twinkle like stars in a dreamscape, intermingling with distant voices, gravelly footsteps and birdsong. It’s a dream-like stroll through the park on a Sunday morning, simultaneously grounded in reality yet entirely otherworldly. The listener seems to have arrived at the final stop on this journey, parting ways with Jenkins’s steady narrating voice and leaving with an overwhelming sense of peace.
On “The Ramble,” Jenkins reconnects us with nature, as each new vibration and cinematic crescendo reminds us of the beauty in an ever-changing world. It’s not something we can stop, Jenkins postulates, but merely close our eyes and embrace with all its unknown faces, voices and sensations.
Daily Arts Writer Nora Lewis can be reached at email@example.com.