I have this romanticized notion of who Kate Jacobs is: a mild-mannered civilian, living with her family on a farm in upstate New York, eyes wide open to the lives around her which she secretly documents, with a surgeon’s grace, in impeccably structured twangy pop songs. Like she’s a superhero without the red cape, rising in (to quote Jeff Tweedy) “the Bible black pre-dawn” to fix breakfast and then steal off to the living room, lit by the easterly sunlight, to compose the next three minutes of beauty. The songs leisurely take shape over four years; the next two years are spent making occasional drives into the bustling cities of Brooklyn and Hoboken, where the songs are arranged and recorded, time permitting based on the babysitter’s availability.
I suspect this idealized scenario is not exactly how You Call That Dark came to be, although it’s true that Jacobs is the proprietor of a family farm in upstate New York. But she has also spent plenty of time in metropolises like Vienna and New York City, no doubt instrumental in providing her with a mature perspective from which to craft her resolute, familial character studies. Jacobs could have found great success as an author (she’s reportedly working on a book of gardening essays), as her songs have just as much in common with Barbara Kingsolver and Richard Ford as they do with Lucinda Williams and Ron Sexsmith.
You Call That Dark, Jacobs’s fourth album (and first since 1998’s Hydrangea), is a song cycle on farming, family, nature, and age, as humble as an old apple tree and charming like a crackling hearth. Some of the topics covered include: Orchards, barns, apple farms, bloodroot, meadowlarks, John Deere tractors, and elm trees. And Shakespeare. Jacobs has a childlike voice that can initially catch you off guard, but its frail innocence, cautiously wise beyond its years, is nothing short of endearing. Her songs are economically vivid, rich portraits of life that seem to defy their own prudence with lush detail and heart.
At its core, You Call That Dark is rooted in family concerns. “Your Big Sister” opens the album with Byrdsian 12-stringed arpeggios branched across a tale of one youngest daughter’s secret confidences to another. “I know her, and I have got one too”, Jacobs confesses of the title character, “They’re much prettier than me and you / They always choose to tell the truth / They pay the price of home, throw away their youth.” “A family is a bitter thing,” Jacobs admits in “Lavender Line” as she watches the sun sink in the valley, conceding its light to the impending darkness.
If family is at the album’s center, then farm life is what supports and surrounds it. The pensive, folky “Pete’s Gonna Sell” uses the story of a farmer who has to sell his farm to note the disappearance of traditional farming. “Now we’re the last farm on the road,” Jacobs laments with a sigh, “And we don’t farm, we just keep it mowed.” “Helen Has a House”, a stark piano ballad, describes the effect an old woman and her dilapidated farm have on the neighbors: “She knows you’re scared to death of what you see / Your own farm failing, and your fading family.”
Rarely does Jacobs falter from this subtle excellence, although the tale of an old farmer, hospitalized and unable to communicate with his native tongue in “What a World, What a God” winds up being a bit too literal for its own good. It’s funny that “That Time of Year”, which puts Shakespeare to music, doesn’t fail with self-indulgence or embarrassment. The song’s arrangement, a kind of country-meets-klezmer chamber folk with violin, banjo, and clarinet, surprisingly doesn’t call attention to the fact that the words are audaciously taken from the Bard’s 73rd sonnet.
You Call That Dark is produced by Jacobs’s frequent Hoboken collaborator Dave Schramm, one-time Yo La Tengo member and session player on albums by Richard Buckner, Chris Stamey, and Freedy Johnston. Schramm nestles the songs in organic hues and lets them sparkle around the edges with ringing, exultant guitars, simmering organs, brushed snare drums, and plentiful backing vocals that add heft to Jacobs’s tremulant soprano.
It took Jacobs six years to make this album, the same amount of time that Lucinda Williams labored over Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Jacobs and Williams are similar songwriters, the former distinctively Northern and the latter unmistakably Southern. It’s curious that Jacobs doesn’t possess the same renown as her slobbered-over colleague; perhaps it’s better that way. Perhaps Jacobs will continue to live on that farm, methodically brewing songs in her head, watching the sun set and the stars rise, and allowing us to fortuitously peak in on the progression of a life.