Timeless in its sound and contemporary in its content, Melbourne-based Jess Locke reminds us what makes us human on her triumphant new album, ‘Don’t Ask Yourself Why’.
Nearly twelve years ago, Jess Locke released her debut album, In The Bedroom, which was literally written, performed, recorded, and produced in her bedroom. At the time, she was still living at home in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria. Now based out of Melbourne, the singer-songwriter has slowly grown from her self-described “sad-pop” phase to an artist who quietly rages at herself and the world. Locke’s maturation has made her an artist with potential to an Artist to Watch to an emerging songwriting powerhouse within the Australian music scene. Her rise has not been meteoric by any stretch of the imagination, but even some of the greatest singer-songwriters and bands of the 21st Century (e.g., The National, Sharon Van Etten, St. Vincent, Future Islands) plied their trade for several years before finally breaking out. It took just one album for their stars to turn, and Don’t Ask Yourself Why could be the one that gets the world to notice Locke’s talent.
Don’t Ask Yourself Why is timeless in its sound yet contemporary in its content. It recalls the days when songs would leave bodies limp with their stirring melodies while minds were blown by the lyrical poignancy. Locke’s third album is partially a conversation with herself and another part revelations she discovers through the eyes of others. Every moment and every story are remarkable to hear and watch unfold.
The gentle folk-rock ballad, “Tell Me I’m Okay”, opens the record with a Julia Jacklin-like gritty grace. With a melody that would be apt for a barnyard slow dance, Locke reveals the depression and anxiety that eats away at her soul. With a wry sense of self-deprecating humor, she sings, “And if there’s a god then I’m her biggest joke / And if there’s not then it’s just poor dumb luck”. As if giving herself a pep talk to relieve her self-doubt, Locke tells herself on the modern lullaby, “Don’t Ask Yourself Why”, that “Baby it’s a war / What you fighting for? / You fight for your pride / Don’t ask yourself why.”
Just as Locke is prepared to go to battle, her other side attempts to settle her down on the cinematic “Destroy Everything”. “This is not a fight / But a stoning in the night,” she wisely sings. Later, she calmly tells herself that “You can burn it down / It will come back again” to note how anger is futile. Action, though, could be taken to avoid Armageddon, which she reveals on the bouncy and anthemic “Fool” As her reverb-drenched guitar rips, Locke’s smooth vocals recount the devastating moments in our history and the frightening expectations of the future. “I’m terrified of where we’re going”, she proclaims. Her statement could apply to each individual and the broader world, but one thing is clear: she fears that if we do not do something soon, we may not have a future to even dream about.
This fear is further animated in a different fashion on the brittle and emotional “Blowfish”. The cause, though, is not what’s happening around her, but what is happening to one close to her heart. “You’re the lion, I’m the lamb / Let’s play out as you planned”, her pain-tinged voice sings. All these experiences start to weigh heavily on Locke, as depicted on “Dead And Gone”. A ’70s country-folk vibrancy emanates from this instant classic. It commences with a delicately-strummed acoustic guitar and the titter-tatter of the rhythms, and then it swells like the euphoric grandeur heard in Angel Olsen’s booming folk-rockers. Through the sonic cinema, Locke writes a message to herself to not fret about the past and that all things must come to an end. As she movingly sings, “Don’t go worrying about what’s dead and gone”.
Locke unleashes her inner grunge rocker on the melodic yet gritty “Little Bit Evil”. As her reverb-drenched guitar growls through the air, she reveals that beneath the innocent demeanor lies an ugly side. As much as she tries to be pure and true, she has her faults and limits. That she, too, needs to be heard and seen.
“Don’t you ever tire of being a perfect model upstanding citizen?
Don’t you ever feel like just giving in?
Just admit you’re a little bit evil”
With “Halo”, Locke unveils a dark yet delicate ballad that is mesmerizing from start to finish. With her friend and fellow singer-songwriter Robert Muinos providing backing vocals, Locke delves into the mind of a friend and how he, too, is drowning from the noise around and within him. Locke’s and Muinos’ soft, brittle vocals add to the song’s vulnerability while the sparse arrangement creates the brooding panorama for this drama of a young man with nowhere to go. He is living in purgatory.
“Now you gotta pick a team
Be the hunter or the meat
There is nothing between
And you’ve got something in your teeth”
Everything, though, has an ending. With just an acoustic guitar, Locke tells herself and everyone that “All Things Will Change” on the album’s closer. The track, however, is more of a case of “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” As she says on the song’s final line, when it is all said and done, “No one will remember your name” because people will move on to the next thing. But we beg to differ because people will remember the people who inspire us to be greater than we are. We will also remember those who craft art that deeply resonates with our core. This is what Locke has done with Don’t Ask Yourself Why – she’s made an album that reminds us what makes us human at the end of the day.
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