I’ve heard the argument that one should avoid deploying the word “evocative” without being able to state what’s being evoked. This may rest on a too narrow understanding of the term, but it’s a useful exercise in emphasizing the importance of specificity: there’s a difference between affecting vague “evocative”-ness and evoking distinct feelings and memories of substance. Adorned with orchestral touches like soft bursts of horn, gently swooping strings, and bright xylophone, the four pop-folk tracks on Jordan Klassen’s Kindness are “evocative” in the former, fuzzier sense of the word. They’re well-performed, dutifully arranged, and never sound anything less than wistful and portentous, because albums like Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left and Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise have taught us the sounds that signify wistfulness and portentousness in chamber pop.
Stevens is, indeed, the most prevalent sonic influence here, and, to his detriment, the Vancouver-based Klassen seizes upon his most melodramatic, least playful urges without undercutting them with any idiosyncratic weirdness of his own. Klassen’s a competent lyricist in that he largely evades distracting groaners, but this fastidiousness seems entirely a byproduct of not distracting from the straightforward mood of the music. When I misheard the chorus to “I am a Collector” as “Come away from nothing, I control you / Come away from nowhere, I will own you”, it was jarring, but made me think Klassen was deliberately undermining the sweeping melancholy of the arrangement with a stalking, unreliable narrator. I was disappointed to discover the actual words are the far less distracting, if just as contextually nonsensical “I can show you” and “I will loan you”.
Klassen proves himself a genuinely talented craftsman on Kindness, and he even comes across as an inspired performer, particularly on opener “Go to Me”, where his usual hush climbs to a dead-on James Mercer impression. But there’s something missing between the craft he’s learned from his influences and his overly cautious, if undeniably ear-pleasing, execution. Klassen’s creations are a pop music tautology of sorts: pretty because they’re pretty, “evocative” because they’re “evocative”.