Oak Park singer-songwriter Kara Jackson was named National Youth Poet Laureate in 2019, so lyrically, you know you’re in for a ride. But what surprises about her full-length debut (she released an EP in 2019) is the level of music-making. This isn’t your standard collection of AABA tunes; it’s a journey through love and loss where compositions vary in form and length, sometimes shifting tempi and structure mid-tune, and boasting a dizzying sonic array of textures, grooves and colors. Jackson has a full palette of sounds available to her, from her plangent guitar to the range of sonics and effects of the sound board, and she uses everything scrupulously for narrative effect. It’s a rare album that you can praise as highly for sound design as for music and lyrics, but this one clears the bar.
“Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love” is an album-length meditation on love and loss, and on the existential struggle to grasp their reflexive nature without being pulled under or corrupted. Jackson touches the flame and gets singed a number of times, sometimes for the wisdom, sometimes just for the experience. In one of the standout tracks, “no fun/party,” where she sings, “I wanna be as dangerous as a dancing dragon / Or a steam engine, a loaded gun / Being loved for my hazard and a will to destruct / And isn’t that just love, a will to destruct.” In the song’s outro, which is strummed on a banjo and filtered to sound like a crackly old 78 platter, she concludes, “Don’t be sorry for missing the party / ‘Cause somebody’s party is missing you, too.”
In “Pawnshop”—a meticulously crafted tune with a tropical groove, and stellar work by Nick Levine on slide guitar and Nnamdï on percussion—Jackson sings about the transactional nature of a love affair, and delivers the wry wisdom she gains as a result. “I’m not a liquidated asset / I’m sharper than a jewel / What kind of miner does that make you? / When I’m the gold and you’re just a fool.”
The wittiest tune in the set is “Dickhead Blues.” It’s not an actual blues tune, but it conveys the sheer world-weariness of romantic striving. “Thinking Cupid calls for you / End up gum on someone’s shoes” is about as elegant a summation of the typical romantic arc as you’re likely to get. But Jackson’s come out the other side: “I’m no longer amused by losers / Who find themselves losing me… / I’m not as worthless as I once thought / I am pretty top-notch / I’m useful.” She holds that last word, crooning it like she’s gliding off a cliffside on it.
While some tracks are very short—little more than fragments—some are expansive journeys. In “Free,” which wafts in on languid strumming under some surf sounds, as well as a cooing harp and sax, Jackson has some hard-won wisdom: “I’m not so motherly / I won’t kiss your cheek / I’m sure you’re someone’s baby / But it ain’t me.” Her voice drops ominously a few measures later: “Don’t you bother me”—a refrain that, twined with Macie Stewart (of Ohmme) on guitar, brings the song home—with a final declaration of “I’m free.”
“Rat” is the only real story song on the album, and while structurally and melodically it’s appropriately simple, it’s spectacularly produced, with ambient passages bleeding in at intervals; a real tribute to the ingenuity and taste of Jackson’s collaborators, KAINA, Nnamdï and Sen Morimoto and to mixer Jason Agel. Jackson’s own facility for vibrant narrative is on full display:
California calls him by his collar
His waves were ill behaved so now he doesn’t bother
Shook the country from him like a cub clawing its father
Couldn’t buy compassion cause it’d cost him forty dollars
The title track is, perhaps fittingly, the most direct and affecting, and is reportedly the first one Jackson wrote—apparently after a mentor received the same cancer diagnosis that had just cost Jackson a close friend. “I’ve buried old and young,” she sings hauntingly, “I’ve watched them lower a saint / We’re only waiting our turn / call that living?”
As a singer, Jackson isn’t a belter or a crooner, or any other conventional kind of stylist; her tone and phrasings are conversational, and she’s generally up close to the mic, rendering her delivery more intimate. The effect of such intimacy, however, isn’t always comforting or reassuring; it can sometimes be painful or even harrowing. But whatever the feeling, it’s always shared; and the perspective can be dazzling. In the tradition of the best and boldest singer-songwriters, Kara Jackson has kept nothing secret, nothing hidden; with the result that everything we see, we recognize.
“Why Does the Earth Give Us People to Love?” is available on Kara Jackson’s Bandcamp page.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.