The Nightjar and the Garden is a highly literary effort, a testament to a woman's trying faith in a time and place where it is a commodity that is being continuously challenged.
Jess Reimer lives in rural Manitoba, Canada, and her songs are infused with the trials and tribulations of life in small towns. Her latest album, The Nightjar and the Garden, which was produced by the legendary Bob Wiseman (who was the original keyboardist for one of Canada's greatest bands, Blue Rodeo), unspools tales of young pregnancy (which parallels that of Reimer's life) and heartbreak. Capital punishment also gets doled out. But through it all is a thread of hope. On "I Want to Believe", an old-timey gospel number that ends the disc, Reimer exclaims, "I want to believe / In the great rock of ages / I want to believe / In the coming again / I want to believe / There's a place at God's table for the faithful and fabled."
In essence, Reimer seems ready and willing to put her faith in something bigger than all of us, hoping to find rescue and deliverance for all of the rough patches experienced and espoused earlier on the record, even if the song is titled "I Want to Believe" and not "I Believe". There's no doubt that Reimer sings of the "Great Awakening" (a song title), finding a place of spirituality among the squalor. Anyone who has struggled with life will find much to be uplifted by here, even though Reimer might be the first to admit that life isn't fair, it's a challenge, and there are things out there that will drain you.
She covers Warren Zevon's "Heartbreak Spoken Here", transmuting it from something that was already a country tune into a '60s Grand Ole Opry jaunt. "I'm no stranger to disillusionment," sings Reimer in Zevon's words, and that's painfully evident on the collection here. She makes "1,500 Appeals", a song that owes something in passing to the sound of the Cowboy Junkies. Here, and on "People Have the Power", a cover of a Patti Smith song, the voices of children can be heard, which appears to reference Reimer's desire to have a childlike innocence even it has been broken time and time again by the harshness of daily life and one's personal climate. The racial capital punishment tale on the record is called "The Lonesome Death of Troy Davis", where Reimer sings of the judgment that "This is bigger than you". Ripped from the headlines – Troy Davis was a black man executed in Georgia in 2011 even though the guilt of his crime was in serious doubt, and much haggling went up and down the US court circuit over his fate – the song is a harrowing reminder of the problems in the world. In some respects, though, The Nightjar and the Garden is a call to arms, as evidenced on "People Have the Power", which attempts to transcend the issues of the world, and give them a voice: "I was dreaming in my dreaming / Of an aspect bright and fair / In my sleeping it was broken / But my dream has lingered near," sings Reimer.
Wiseman is credited with charting the course of the sound of the album, and though his fingerprints are all over it – it feels very much a companion piece to his last solo record, Giulietta Masina at the Oscars Crying, not only in sound but in thematic of life's injustices (see "Ruby Bates at School") – he deftly stands back enough and lets Reimer's flair for songwriting take to the fore. The Nightjar and the Garden is the perfect balance between an artist and her producer, and the relationship is more than complimentary. As well, Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith contributes guest vocals on a number of tracks. There's also a clear theme to the record: it literally is interested in things that take flight. Two songs here are named after birds – "Whippoorwill", which is a symbol for death and entrapment, and "Blackbird", which is described as a sacred but destructive bird. This is apt, for The Nightjar and the Garden is interested in both about being trapped in a small town with no outlet for expression and turning to God when times are tough, which, in itself, is not an easy decision in this secular day and age.
The sequencing of the album is spectacular as well. Starting with "Maggie the Retriever (Bang Bang)", which is essentially a murder ballad updated to a contemporary country sound, and ending with the spiritually uplifting "I Want to Believe", this album traverses the back country of rural living, rural beliefs, and rural hardships. And, yet, the LP is not off-putting, owing to the pleasing sound of the record, which closely hews to Americana, country rock, and gospel.
"Can't you hear the angels listening? / But that ain't enough, you want to hear them speak," sings Reimer early on the record in "1,500 Appeals", pointing to one's doubts of the higher power that anyone who has wrestled with the existence of God has gone through. In that sense, Reimer is humanized: she's a woman who has made tough choices, such as giving birth at a young age, and The Nightjar and the Garden traverses the road between the personal and the profound, the sacred and the profane. Reimer reminds us that we all have our crosses to bear, but no more so that the small town individual in a highly urban, industrial age that has dehumanized and surpassed the voice of the rural. This album is a reminder is that there is a place at the table for all of us.
The Nightjar and the Garden is a highly literary effort, a testament to a woman's trying faith in a time and place where it is a commodity that is being continuously challenged. To that end, this is a brave effort from a gifted musician – I hesitate to use the term "up and comer" as Reimer has been around making music in various guises for some time now. However, one can only be optimistic that her audience broadens with this audacious effort. Reimer has a voice, one that is hopeful and is raised above the din of personal pain, and, for that, she is a searing talent. Where she goes from here is anyone's guess, but, after listening to this disc, you sincerely hope against all hope that she finds what she's looking for, and finds the redemption in salvation that she so clearly covets and coveys. "I Want to Believe", indeed.