In one sense, it seems odd that Jesu are on Mark Kozelek’s label Caldo Verde. The Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters front man specializes in sad, slow songs with backings ranging from solo guitar to classic Crazy Horse crunch. Justin Broadrick, meanwhile, makes music that draws on doom metal, shoegaze, noise and similar genres. But what the two artists have in common is a commitment to finding new nuances in the same emotional and sonic ground that they’ve each been tilling for decades now. That doesn’t always leave room for a lot of variation; the two songs on Ascension that are most interesting qua songs are the one that sounds a bit more like ‘90s alt-rock than normal (“Sedatives”), and the one where it keeps sounding like Broadrick is clearing his throat, but melodically (“Broken Home”). Outside of these two tracks, lumped together near the beginning of the album, nothing stands out here. I don’t know if I could hum any of these tracks to you, or tell you what Broadrick was singing about. Although in the latter case, I could offer some pretty solid guesses: he probably doesn’t sound like he’s happy with himself, with you, with people, or with the world.
That description could seem disparaging if you were coming to Jesu for songs or for a balanced emotional view of the world. But fans of Jesu are not, I would imagine, looking for those things. Broadrick’s storied history in Godflesh and assorted side projects (including a brief stint in Napalm Death to kick off his music career) has established him as a man whose talents lie in depth, not in breadth. Sure, when he works as Techno Animal, Final, or Pale Sketcher, Broadrick is equally adept with a variety of genres and forms, but all of the music he makes is heavy in one sense or another, loaded with crushing sadness, florid rage or towering disgust, almost collapsing under its own weight if not for Broadrick’s increasingly indulged melodic talents.
Even Broadrick’s oeuvre under the Jesu name is indicative of his progression from one kind of weight to another. 2004’s stark, punishing debut (still probably the best end-to-end album Broadrick has ever made) was outright monolithic, using the forms of doom metal and every technique from length (the average length of its eight tracks is over nine minutes) to occasionally painful levels of treble to make Jesu as misanthropic as it is anthemic. 2007’s lauded Conqueror, with its turn toward an almost comically more ingratiating blend of shoegaze and metal, seems almost wussy in comparison, but the choruses are probably the best of Broadrick’s career, and the album is almost suffocating in its relentless, riff-based attack.
While Broadrick is ridiculously prolific, Ascension is only the third “official” Jesu album, and it splits the difference. Not quite as candy-coated as Conqueror or as harrowing as Jesu, it’s mostly notable for both Broadrick’s high level of quality control (unless you just outright dislike his kind of music, his songs are always at least pleasingly consistent in tone and impact) and his increasing, perhaps unwitting, move away from song form.