There’s no doubting the intuitive vision and precocious abilities Jeremy Jay possesses, just as it’s clear that he is still learning how to strike the right balance between overindulging his strong creative impulses and harnessing them. His latest album Splash might as well be a document of Jay’s growing pains, caught as he is between following his muse and getting too carried away with his imagination. A promising but somewhat frustrating effort, Splash is all about an ambitious young artist finding himself, tracing the process that Jay’s going through to grow into and live up to his talent.
What’s striking about the first impression Splash makes is how easy the indie singer-songwriter schtick comes to Jay, from the quirky attitude he gives off to the rough-hewn but catchy melodies he renders so effortlessly on the album. Of course, it doesn’t exactly hurt that Jay’s got some natural gifts to do this kind of thing well, with a voice that recalls Thurston Moore in its slacker-cool tone and Stephen Malkmus in its phrasing. So, while what first got Jay noticed were thrift-store dance-pop numbers “Slow Dance” and “Airwalker”, Splash shows Jay easing into the role of underground troubadour that suits him very well, conjuring a sense of stylistic continuity in its jangly pop songs and a narrative coherence to its panoramic sketches of being young in the city.
At his best, Jay combines a keen eye for detailing the day-to-day thrills of new experiences with an exuberant innocence that seeks out wonder in anything. “Just Dial My Number” begs to be an old-fashioned radio single, evoking the guileless giddiness of oldies-pop as Jay waits by the telephone with a sense of anticipation that’s more befitting a teen of yesteryear than today’s texters and Tweeters. More quietly stunning is “A Sliver of a Chance”, an almost breathless piece that evokes churning insides and stolen glances, as Jay daydreams about his object of affection, “Kissing the air / Kiss goodnight”. On these tracks, Jay hits just the right notes to convey how he’s ever the romantic by creating drama through understated longing and earnest sentiment.
That’s why it’s puzzling that Splash veers into surrealism, because the emotional realism of Jay’s indie pop can be so appealing. For some reason that’s probably only known to the artist himself, the jaguar is a recurring figure on a good portion of Splash—and a symbol of how Jay’s excesses get out of hand and in the way of his impressionistic songs. The jarring image ends up cluttering some of the most resonant tracks on Splash, like on the pretty Luna-like opener “As You Look Over the City” and the title track, which would otherwise be one of the better renditions of what Thurston Moore might be like as a poppy solo artist, with its driving Sonic Youth-lite guitars. After the jaguar makes a few more reappearances, it’s easy to give up trying to figure out whether Jay’s being literal or figurative, whether he wants to play it straight or just let his freak flag fly. So while “It Happened Before Our Time” recalls the oddities of Malkmus’ solo albums with its pirate theme, Jay’s affect can’t sell it either as an extended metaphor for something else or a smirky goof-off. At these moments, Splash spins out Jay’s control, when his vivid imagination gets the better of him.
Indeed, it’s when Jay dials his artistic temperament back a bit that he ups the creative and emotional ante on Splash, like when he pushes the right buttons and strikes the right sentimental chords on “Why Is This Feeling So Strong?”: A long-distance love letter dreaming up lost kisses and missed opportunities, the closing track ends Splash on a high note, with its crisp staccato guitar rhythms and twangy curlicues playing off of Jay’s gently soaring vocals. It just goes to show that, even for a gifted young artist like Jeremy Jay, often the best way to stand out is not to stick out too much.