In summer 2019, the 52-year-old songwriter David Cloud Berman took his own life in an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Known and beloved for his songwriting vehicle Silver Jews, Berman surprised fans in 2019 with a new project, Purple Mountains, and its eponymous album, his first for 11 years. Shortly after its release, he was due to tour with fellow Brooklynite Cassandra Jenkins, whose 2021 release, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, eulogizes her late friend more than once. “You’re gone / You’re everywhere,” she muses on the foreboding and deeply moving “Ambiguous Norway”.
Both Jenkins and Berman are arresting lyricists, and in many respects, their words deal with the same complexities and questions—crucially, they both notice things. But while Jenkins finds solace in phenomenal nature, mindfulness, and piecing together life’s loose links, Berman’s lyrics are self-deprecating and facetious. “Well, I don’t like talkin’ to myself / But someone’s gotta say it, hell / I mean, things have not been going well / This time I think I finally fucked myself” are the opening lines from the Purple Mountains album. For Berman, “The meaning of the world lies outside the world.” But for Jenkins, the meaning lies inside of it.
The Josh Kaufman-produced Phenomenal Nature, which follows up Play Till You Win (2017), is a collection of melancholic reflections on disparate observations and interactions that Jenkins collects into a scrapbook of meditative and whimsical indie-folk. Like Purple Mountains, she is upfront about what’s on offer with Phenomenal Nature—not only from the clarity of the title but, too, the opening track “Michaelangelo”.
Similar to how “That’s Just the Way That I Feel” outlines Berman’s unrelenting tongue-in-cheek cynicism, the opening phrase of “Michaelangelo”, “I’m a three-legged dog / Working with what I got”, establishes the hopeful yet pained tone of the album. It’s the most accessible and conservative song, providing Phoebe Bridgers fans with an entrance point to Jenkins’ work. A muted, percussive guitar progression plods through the track, occasionally competing with a buzzy lead line that’s reminiscent of ’90s fuzz-pedal wielders. Yet the sweeping violins and wordless vocal hums elevate things above run-of-the-mill lo-fi indie.
“The water, it cures everything,” Jenkins intones on the ponderous “New Bikini”, which contains the most overt references to nature’s healing powers. “If you’re bruised, you’re grazed, you’re any kind of broken / Baby, go jump in the ocean.” Jenkins dispenses aperçus such as these—on loss, life, afterlife, nature (including human nature)—with a thoughtful equanimity that’s comforting and captivating, ensuring a security guard’s pink lipstick is as memorable as Warren’s mother’s advice of jumping in the ocean.
The illustrious second single, “Hard Drive”, is the nucleus of the action. Here, Jenkins juxtaposes a difficult drive on Manhattan’s west side highway—she only got her license two years ago—with the 7th Ray Inn bookkeeper’s postulation that the mind is a hard drive, storing particles of unrelated information that it’s our job to piece together and discern meaning from. The spoken word delivery is intimate and feels like you are in the car with her as she navigates NYC traffic. The eclectic instrumentation—here and elsewhere on the album—borrows from jazz and minimalism, as somber saxophone lines weave between twinkly clean guitar loops. Jenkins also incorporates found sounds, samples, and other orchestral instruments throughout. “Hard Drive” opens with a self-recorded conversation between herself and a security guard at the defunct Met Breuer museum on New York’s Upper East Side, which is reintroduced as the track reaches its apex.
In line with the tranquil coastal picture on the album cover, a lazy, late-summer haze washes over every song. “Empty space / Is my escape / It runs through me like a river”, one of the most memorable lyrics from “Crosshairs”, could apply to the songs on PN—they run through the listener like a river. On the tender ballad “Hailey”, whose eponymous protagonist is one of Jenkins’ many characters featured on the album, a gorgeous, boxy acoustic guitar leads the way as immersive and warming synths surround the space, providing Jenkins a safe cocoon in which to deliver sparse plaudits on Hailey Gates. “What a woman / Long live Hailey Gates.”
Many of Jenkins’ observations grow more excellent from further rumination and will likely stick with the listener long after the closing chirps of “The Ramble”. Happily, the serene, wordless void of this final track grants us space to reflect on the preceding 20-something minutes and on stand-out phrases such as “You’re gone / You’re everywhere” from “Ambiguous Norway”. The rich, harmonious synth pads and reverb-soaked sax lines on “The Ramble” sound as though we are floating with Berman off into the ‘everywhere’ as life rejoins nature—or, perhaps, the two never separated.