Jackie West 2024
Photo: Jackie West (self-portrait)

Jackie West Dazzles on the Stunning ‘Close to the Mystery’

Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Jackie West effortlessly transcends genres and generations on her outstanding debut album, Close to the Mystery.

Close to the Mystery
Jackie West
Ruination Record Co.
10 May 2024

“It isn’t hard to say it’s the end of the world,” Jackie West sings at the top of “End of the World”, the first song on her debut album, Close to the Mystery. “All dreams you made real then / Now exist somewhere in the world.” This kind of ethereal, enveloping proclamation is typical of the 12 utterly gorgeous songs that make up a record that almost seems too mature, too accomplished, and too worldly for someone stepping into the spotlight with their first full-length release. West’s songs occupy a profoundly satisfying place where the songs sound like instant classics and are difficult to pin down stylistically – something of a ballad-heavy netherworld where jazz, folk, soul, and pop coexist without crowding each other out.

Typical of the artists on the Brooklyn-based Ruination record label, West possesses a unique sound that is equally adept in a number of different musical environments. Close to the Mystery was produced by multi-instrumentalist Sarah Pedinotti (Lip Talk, Kalbells) and features adept instrumentation by the likes of Shahzad Ismaily, guitarist Adam Brisbin (Buck Meek, Cassandra Jenkins), Nico Osborne (Nicomo), and Katy Pinke (whose self-titled debut album was released on Ruination last month). West, who wrote all the album’s songs, takes the listener on a multifaceted journey that begins with the sumptuous, unmoored “End of the World”, accompanied mainly by acoustic guitar and dotted with understated strings.

The tremolo-treated electric guitar that runs through “Differences” gives the song the feel of a midcentury soul ballad or perhaps a country waltz filtered through Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins. “And when the night will howl at your moon,” she sings to a lover in the ashes of a breakup, “I will stare right through the silk of your face / Let you know you won’t be alone.” Jackie West’s vocals and the way they’re recorded sound like she may be the reincarnation of classic vocalists like Peggy Lee or a new generation’s Hope Sandoval.

But while the songs certainly retain an air of classic songwriting and performances, there are light contemporary touches, as if the listener is being gently nudged into a modern world. The distorted guitar licks that rise up out of the warm ballad “Have the Time” mesh oddly but beautifully with West’s vocals, angelic harmonies, and shimmering keyboards. There’s a sense of dreamy unease on “Ruins”, which features an off-kilter drum beat, spikes of atonal guitar, and psychedelic keyboard runs – but none of this ever seems to overtake the songs. The weirdness usually only simmers a bit, occasionally bubbling up to the surface.

The country feeling of many of the songs is never of a twangy, upbeat nature. It’s too subdued and married to a jazz-standard feel – even the less elaborately arranged songs, like gentle, swaying “Olivia”, bring to mind inspired, creative genre exercises like the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions (despite or perhaps because of the swell of occasional retro synth swells). But West also employs arrangements that subtly give way to an indescribable complexity that sneak up on you. “Snow Amplified” begins quietly and gently, as West croons, “Snow on the ground / Lay by your side / The mighty sky / Your geranium eye” against the insistent strum of electric guitar before the song slides into a gauzy shoegaze episode, which comes off more as delightfully inevitable than off-putting.

“How they all want us to be,” Jackie West sings on Close to the Mystery’s final song, “Who Cares”. “Lost in the wars of yesterday / Follow no course so to see / The ground turning from tame to free.” There’s an irresistible low-key soul feel to the song, but it’s given a classic, reverb-heavy makeover, as if Lana Del Rey time-traveled to a 1950s Manhattan studio. That kind of stylistic zig-zagging is all over this stunning debut album, but Jackie West and the incredible musicians backing her have formed it all into a consistent, coherent collection that is so seamlessly enjoyable, it’s as if a new genre has been invented – one that transcends generations.

RATING 9 / 10