There is nothing on Jolie Holland’s latest that matches the seductive, demurely jazz-tinged “Mehitabel’s Blues” or “Stubborn Beast” from 2006’s Springtime Can Kill You. But let’s be clear: there is nothing on that record to rival the heady rush of The Living and the Dead, a more straight-up country-rock record, but no less powerful for its leanness. Never a slouch, Holland demonstrates as convincingly as ever her playful yet solid command of Americana past and present as music to be lived in rather than just visited on a lark. From the opening bars of “Mexico City” to the giggle fits of closer “Enjoy Yourself”, The Living and the Dead sparkles and rarely missteps.
As per usual, the prime interest on the album is Holland’s voice, an idiosyncratic, knowing twang that bends vowels and swallows consonants. But somehow her pipes sound more restrained here, without losing any of their unique charm. On the M. Ward-abetted “Your Big Hands”, she’s a twitchier Lucinda Williams. Still capable of melting “told” into “taold” and “bird” into “baiord”, Holland sounds nonetheless comfortable in the song’s conservative arrangement, never swinging too wildly. The atmospheric “Fox in Its Hole” features shimmering Marc Ribot guitars, while a double-tracked lead vocal gently works up a melody reminiscent of “Wayfaring Stranger”, nodding to the past while remaining unmistakably current. Yet again, Holland sings in service of the song, nuanced without being overly precious or showy. And the songs themselves are gorgeous.
The Living and the Dead is concerned with no less than the grand theme of life and death, or at least with elevating every moment to its utmost importance. “Mexico City” is packed with characters, images, first-, second-, and third-person tenses. It’s cryptic and personal, but the lilting progressions are warm and inviting to the point that one is able to grasp wisps of significance in the shards of narrative possibly concerning an army surgeon back from the war: “My true love is fresh from the battlefield / Sewing up the dying and carting off the dead”. The mournful “The Future” begins bluntly, “Everything around here makes me sad” and unspools from there, a long thread of regret that culminates with a simple plea—“Come on and wake up with me”—that builds in import with each repetition. Holland pulls off lines and ideas that end up maudlin in others’ hands by her unique gift of sounding simultaneously focused and nonchalant. She offsets weighty moments with casual grace and magnifies mundane details into revelations.
The best example of this is how the line “Put my lipstick back on” is highlighted on the album’s finest track, the radiant “Palmyra”. After a slow building first verse, the song’s tension breaks on that image, ensuring that the emotional and visual facets of “Palmyra” are inextricably linked. When Holland sings “My little heart is a graveyard / It’s a no man’s land”, it’s a Day of the Dead mural, not simply a handy metaphor, so much so that the declarative and confessional, “And I wondered how I could do with you / How absurd / How absurd” almost sneaks by unnoticed. Almost. The band is loose but assured, buffeting Holland’s sighing and smiling melodies with twangy vigor on a song that loses nothing after countless listens.
Neither does the entire album for that matter. Its ten songs sweep by briskly in comparison to its languorous (yet lovely) predecessor. It’s a shade more rock and roll, an ounce more blunt, a great deal of fun, and it documents an increasingly confident artist wielding prime, unpretentious material.
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