On its surface, one could view Jess Williamson’s Native State as yet another entrée into the modern chamber folk canon alongside Joanna Newsom, Fleet Foxes et al. Yet underneath its minimalist construct, Native State‘s sparse seven songs can be taken as a classic bildungsroman, one in which the protagonist’s journey of discovery finds them returning home.
Echoing Williamson’s own journey from Austin, Texas to New York City and back, travel and locales litter Native State‘s first half: the US Northwest, Barcelona, Brooklyn and California, populated with mystic healers, sacred hoops and San Franciscan ghosts lured by false promises some half-century ago by the Mamas & the Papas.
Nearly devoid of form, the lack of choruses on Native State is rectified by repeated lines which serve as expository moments: “Things look far away and you haven’t felt awake / For days and days and days and days and days”. Banjo, clipped organ drones, cello and attenuated percussion serve as a driving rhythm yet travels on its own path, often belying any tension or relief conveyed by Williamson’s voice which spans from unsteady creaks (“Blood Song”) and warbles (“Spin the Wheel”) to assuredly repentant (“You Can Have Heaven on Earth”).
As the album progresses through states of penance, healing and salvation, before ultimately arriving at maturity, it’s Chance that provides a spiritual awakening through the transcendental power of nature, previously shrouded and unattainable through salt water drunk by shaman. Genuflecting to Mother Nature, Williamson pleads, “Don’t turn away, don’t turn away / As I bow to you / Look at my face / I bow to you.”
Defining the album’s title as “who you are at your core”, Williamson transforms one wont “to talk so ugly” into one with “honey for the hungry / And everybody gets a little piece.” Finding a place in the world after life’s first astrological orbit, the holiness of home and the sanctity of one’s own thoughts is now enough to sate prior youthful ambitions.
Predating releases by Hurray for the Riff Raff, Lydia Loveless and Angel Olsen, Native State warrants Williamson’s inclusion in any discussion of these early 2014 outings. Perhaps the most carefully constructed release by any of these musicians, Native State is an artistic triumph that eschews the artifice of commercial appeal for the sake of personal clarity. In Williamson’s own words, “That’s what I call fucking timing.”