There was a time when popular songwriters wrote more often about people—specific characters they had encountered, composited, or made up, and then breathed life into. Sonny runs his hand through his thinning brown hair, Rhiannon rings like a bell through the night, the Wichita lineman is still on the line—that sort of thing.
The Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter Cassandra Jenkins is bringing back this interested, empathetic mode more vividly than anyone this side of Jens Lekman, but with consummately modern perspective and production that bely her classic, almost literary impulse to use songs to perceive the world, not to block it out. In 2021, Jenkins released her second album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, and achieved a new level of acclaim, including a Best New Music garland from Pitchfork. Produced by Josh Kaufman, the music is deceptively hermetic, with saxophones, synthesizers, and field recordings wrapping around Jenkins’s implacable voice. But its permeability with the world fills it with fresh air.
Essentially a snapshot of a moment in Jenkins’s life that happened to coincide with the suicide of Purple Mountains leader David Berman, with whom she was to tour, the settings on the record span Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a sea in Norway, and there are more named characters than you can count on one hand. Sometimes she remembered conversations she had; sometimes she recorded them. With this personal documentary material and the calm countrypolitan art-pop songs it was starting to form, Jenkins enlisted The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, a former tour mate who knew a thing or two about story songs, to help her edit it into the gracious, humane record that earned early album-of-the-year nods from Esquire and NPR.