If Ohioan Jessica Lea Mayfield—or her producer, Black Keys’ singer Dan Auerbach—is representing her state with this sound, then Ohio is a place that has a hell of an echo. Not that spacious, comforting kind of echo, but rather something far more bleak and isolating. Her breakthrough sophomore record, With Blasphemy So Heartfelt, gave us a stark but ultimately arresting set of songs. They were country, sort of. They were blues, but only really in feeling. No matter what you called them—and ‘singer-songwriter fare’ doesn’t do it justice—those songs resonated through all that gaping, dark space.
Tell Me, her third record and first for Nonesuch, is somehow starker than that previous record. Mayfield’s acoustic guitar, though still prevalent, isn’t the focus anymore. Instead, Mayfield and producer Auerbach build expansive, reverberating tracks. Organs, electric guitars, echoing drums, and even Mayfield’s own harrowing voice all stretch farther here, and rumble deeper. If With Blasphemy So Heartfelt was a shadowy record, then this one, in its darkest moments, is pitch black.
It’s also far more adventurous and tuneful than its predecessor. So while the emotional hangover for this one might be hefty, it is very much like a good night of drinking—it’ll feel great, like the best idea in the world, until it’s over. Then, well, you’ve got to recover. Of course, maybe Mayfield knows this, because she does give us a few moments to catch our breath, to wave our hands in front of our faces and make sure we can still see, that there’s still a glimmer of light for us. “Suddenly I can see blue skies”, she bursts out on the surprisingly bright “Blue Skies”, and even if you feel like she’s fooling herself, even if the buzzing guitar belies the optimistic sentiment, the song hooks you deep enough to be convincing. Of course, then “Somewhere in Your Heart” follows with the sobering opening, “My mind is weak and twisted, along with my fantasy”. Yup, moments of light are fleeting here, but are all the more impressive for their rarity.
The title track walks the line between this darkness and light. The dried-out tom-work on the drums chugs it forward with a surprising gusto—and then there’s the playfully grunted “oohs” and “aahs” that punctuate the track—but it also finds Mayfield at her most floundering. “Tell me if I should not see a friend in you”, she insists, calling into question her judgment before giving it up altogether. In fact, that confusion between her intentions and her lover’s comes up often on Tell Me. It’s a record about finding someone you can relate to, but realizing that, well, you relate to the wrong people. So while Mayfield’s lyrics often deal in a vocabulary of heartache we know well—“The only time I miss you is every single day”, she sings on “Our Hearts are Wrong”—there’s still a fresh feel to these songs, and a surprising maturity and complexity from the 21-year-old singer. “Our Hearts Are Wrong” serves as a mission statement in some ways, both sonically, with Auerbach’s bracing guitar fills and Mayfield’s ghostly delivery, and thematically as Mayfield claims “I am just like you”, but then admits that is exactly the problem.
For all the repeated ideas of heartache, though, Mayfield is not the same singer we heard a couple years ago. Her haunting deadpan has bloomed into something more melodic and, as a result, more surprising. Now, the moments of venom shot at others, as well as the cutting self-deprecation, catch us a little off guard. We can’t hear her resignation quite as much as before, and so her sing-songy delivery on the shuffling “Nervous Lonely Night” masks her dark lyrics rather than laying them bare for us. The trick works best on “Sometimes at Night”, which is as stark a composition as there is on the record. Her story, however, reveals itself to be slyly funny. You’ll grin at the opening lines about a jilted cabana boy, just before she breaks your heart all over again by song’s end.
Tell Me manages to maintain the beautifully busted feel of Mayfield’s breakout record, but also succeeds in a new and ambitious sonic landscape. There are different ways, it turns out, to create this kind of crushing space, and this one has more variations and more surprises waiting to creep out of it. With the exception of “Grown Man”, which comes off as a kind of 8-bit reggae and spoils a downright sultry vocal performance, these new explorations and textures work in Mayfield’s favor. Brief glimpses of light make the dark paths through these songs seem even darker, more isolating. Despite that frosty Ohioan echo, Mayfield is a convincing and oddly charming tour guide out into that dark. She seems to know what’s out there more than we do, which makes Tell Me so great to follow. Of course, that’s also what makes it so haunting.