Underrated American treasure Jude Johnstone presents refreshingly spare, uncluttered grownup ballads on her latest, Living Room.
20 September 2019
Towards the end of their world-conquering run, as their marriages disintegrated and their sales began to taper off, ABBA issued a series of relationship-dissecting classics. The melodies sounded so right, so near-perfect, it was as if they'd always existed and been plucked out of the ether at just the right moment by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson. "The Winner Takes It All", "The Day Before You Came", "One Of Us" and several others. Although Jude Johnstone doesn't sound especially like ABBA, it is those melancholy Swedish songs that spring to mind upon the first listen of Living Room, her seventh album.
Some of the polished, carefully plotted melodic maneuvers of "Is There Nothing", the heartrending marriage post-mortem that opens the set, are ABBA-esque. However, where the foursome might have treated the song with layer upon layer of production, Johnstone renders it with solo voice, piano, and cello. That's because this is an album whose concept is the jettisoning of fuss and frippery. It's about peeling off the lamination and gloss and getting to the heart of the song. All the necessary recording equipment was set up in Johnstone's Nashville home, in, yes, the living room. A small sprinkle of overdubs was handled elsewhere. On the back cover is a quotation from Emmylou Harris: "In the making of records, I think, over the years, we've all gotten a little too technical, a little too hung up on getting things perfect... and we've lost the living room..."
Johnstone is one of America's finest songwriters. She may not be person-in-the-street famous. But the songs she's landed on albums by Stevie Nicks, Bette Midler, Trisha Yearwood, Jennifer Warners, Bonnie Raitt, and Johnny Cash are an indication of the regard in which she's held. An early champion of her work was none other than Clarence Clemons. Doubt this woman's talent at your peril. Had she gone the pop route, maybe dumbed down a little, she'd be spoken of in the same breath as Diane Warren and Linda Perry. Instead, she plows her own furrow. Her solo career began with 2001's Coming of Age. Each subsequent album has come out on her Bojack Records label. Some of the front covers were let down by typographical choices that looked like afterthoughts.
Living Room, on the other hand, looks exactly as it should. It bears a black and white shot of Johnstone at her grand piano. She is captured from behind. The image, revealing just a sliver of her profile, is full of feeling. It's a beautiful composition and conveys a great deal of understated emotion. And it's exactly what these songs – clever, heartfelt songs of parting, anguish, loss and coming to terms – need. "It's a lonely life I'm living / But I'm gonna wait and see / What this old, broken-down world / Has left for me," she sings on "All I Ever Do". These words characterize the album. Yes, there is crushing hurt and bone-deep pain, but also perseverance and a glimmer of hope. If all that weren't enough, there's Johnstone's voice. It's a rough-smooth instrument – glass stippled with rust and charcoal. It couldn't be better suited to her material.
If Living Room could be said to have a concept besides its stated one, it would have to be the critical junctures of relationships and the endings. The imagery is nocturnal, autumnal, and wintry. It's an album that is heavy of heart but also soothing and cathartic. The listener is left feeling lighter, almost cleansed. Throughout ten songs, Johnstone writes both alone and with a variety of collaborators. One is Blessing Offor, who came to public attention as a contestant in the seventh season of The Voice. The themes introduced on "Is There Nothing" are recurring, with "My Heart Belongs to You", "One Good Reason", "I Guess It's Gonna Be That Way", "Seasons of Time", "So Easy to Forget" all picking up on them.
The album gives the lie to the received wisdom that ballads must be interspersed with up-tempo tracks. Johnstone has succeeded in putting together a running order of slow songs. She achieves variety by way of different time signatures (the waltz-time "Seasons of Time"), rhythm patterns ("Serenita") and moods ("My Heart Belongs to You"). There's also balance and contrast in the treatments given to each song. Some are piano-and-voice arrangements, while others enjoy a shifting array of additional vocalists (Hunter Nelson, Ben Glover, Brandon Jesse) and players (cellist Bob Liebman, penny whistler David Brewer, bassist David Pomeroy, percussionist Mike Meadows, violinist Olivia Korkola, trombonist Tim Hockenberry). These superb musicians move in and out of the foreground as the album travels its perfect 40-minute duration. I should add that ever since the days of "My Heart Will Go On" and any number of watery odes from Ronan Keating or the Corrs, I've found it hard to listen to penny-whistles with unprejudiced ears, a negative personal bias I'm happy to disclose.
As much as Johnstone draws from the singer-songwriter/Americana tradition, she also echoes the great songwriting teams of the pre-rock 20th century. For example, "So Easy to Forget", with its smoky, nighttime textures could, in another lifetime, be a standard that everyone knows, sung alongside "Moon River". As with fellow Nashville writer, Beth Nielsen Chapman, you can sometimes hear the influence of Anglican/Protestant hymns in the way Johnstone builds her stirring musical phrases. She has an unshakeable melodic gift and uses chord structures that would only occur to a pianist. These two qualities give Living Room a lot of its musical heft. Johnstone is a writer who understands how an inversion here, an augmentation there, can add emotional nuance to a piano part. She appreciates every color where some songwriters only use the primary ones. Johnstone is also a fine, very accessible lyricist and, on the evidence presented here, a good chooser of collaborators. And, at the end of all the pain, the ravaged nobility, the anguish, and the letting go, she gracefully weaves in a slender thread of hope in the closing track, "Paradise". It's a sad song about a better future.
In the 1970s, albums as good as this often had million-dollar publicity machines behind them. If there's any justice, Living Room will be, at the very least, a word-of-mouth sleeper success. It's the musical equivalent of a warming shot of brandy on an empty stomach; perfect for the onset of autumn and winter.