An Overview on Phenomenal Nature
2021 • ALTERNATIVE/ROCK • BA DA BING
BEST NEW MUSIC
On her second studio album, New York-based singer Cassandra Jenkins surrounds herself with people, observes dialogues, and tells stories while working on her grief and trying to find herself.
Almost a decade after the dissolution of his project Silver Jews, the American musician and poet David Berman returned to release songs under the name of Purple Mountains. The self-titled debut album was released in July 2019 and a tour was scheduled to take place over the next two months in some cities in the United States and Canada. Cassandra Jenkins, in turn, would share the stage with Berman. However, just three days before the opening night, David committed suicide in his apartment in Brooklyn. Thus, the New York-based singer’s second studio album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, is an account of her most intimate moment, the grief she went through after her friend’s death.
“Nothing ever really disappears, It just changes shape,” Cassandra says on her official website. In recent times, she went on an expedition after something she didn’t even know what was. She saw altered relationships, traveled three continents, wandered museums and parks. Her eyes, which were now more trained, captured humanity, nature, thought patterns, memories, and ways of dealing with loss. After returning home, she met with producer Josh Kaufman and showed some primary ideas, which would become An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, an album with its own and unmistakable mythology where Cassandra deals with grief, questions humanity and its relationship with life and nature. Her songs never looked so intimate, but they never felt so outward and comprehensive either.
Phenomenal Nature has only 30 minutes and seven songs, but this seems the perfect amount for Cassandra to make you feel everything she felt and to say everything she would like to say. There are only seven tracks and one of them is totally instrumental, but that doesn’t seem to be a limitation for her since she makes you, after the record, think and question the same things that she questioned. In less than half an hour, she runs overseas and museums, talks about DNA, healing, and treatment, all alongside an elegant and soft jazzy sound. In other words, she is a priest, her album is a holy book and you are her faithful follower, and both of you seem, again, to be looking for something that both of you don’t even know what it is — perhaps an epiphany?
The album starts with “Michelangelo.” The first sentence we hear is a negative definition of herself, “I’m a three legged dog.” However, the track develops easily and fluidly. Heavy synthesizers appear to help the drums and strings that were muffled in the background. In the lyrics, the song seems to take more and more shape. She sings, “There’s a fly around my head/Waiting for the day I drop dead,” representing her weakness and then complete with the feeling of longing, “You’re a virus/And you come back/At the first sign of weakness.” While all this happens in harmony, Jenkins’ voice is soft at all times, carrying a fear of being overexposed and a sadness in each syllable. Cassandra is not as good at disguising as she is good at writing and playing.
And it is in this almost religious mythology that the album is sustained. Large parts of the songs, which are elegant and well-written, hover over this complete feeling that you are on a healing journey, but, at the same time, that you have already arrived at your destination. It is a curious feeling that the songs pass on to you, an atmosphere that seems to be still lost and trying to find itself but that also seems aware enough of its own existence. She talks about several people — Cassandra, Hailey, David, Warren, and a mother — but at the same time, they all seem to be herself. In the simplistic “Crosshairs,” she sings wishing to break her own reality, “All I want is to fall apart/In the arms of someone/Entirely strange to me.” In “Hailey,” in its turn, she looks desperate to not be able to move on while everyone else seems to flow. But it is in “Ambiguous Norway” that everything is sharper, one of the most powerful points of the album. On the track, she seems to describe the moments before Berman’s death, when she was preparing for the tour. While synthesizers mix with saxophones, strings, and pianos in a way that it would be impossible to break them, she sings about David still being there for her. “No matter where I go/You’re gone, you’re everywhere,” she sings.
However, the two best tracks are perhaps the most abstract of the entire An Overview on Phenomenal Nature — which curiously are also the most vivid ones. In “New Bikini,” she sings about the first moments after David’s death. First, she sings about a fisherman friend of hers who gives her advice that his mother gave to him, which turns out to be the same as her friends and mother also gave, “The water, it cures everything.” However, the best of the entire album is “Hard Drive,” which looks like a kind of spiritual film about finding the true meaning of life. The track begins as a spoken word song and then begins to accelerate its pace with soft drums and the most intense and elegant saxophone on the record. The song can be divided between different faces: first, she meets a security guard who talks about the president, then a bookkeeper who talks about chakras, and finally a friend who seems to finally be able to free her soul from the sadness with the help of a mantra. Much more than that, perhaps, it is the progression and instrumentation of the track that provides this sense of liberation.
On the cover of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, we can see a blue ocean, a pink sky, some rocks, and bright particles in the air. Throughout the album, we went to the sky, the sea, and the rocks, however, it is only on the last track, “The Ramble,” a seven-minute instrumental, that we finally experience these particles. The track revolves around noises and birds and children, saxophone solos, and spiritual synthesizers. Following our theory, it’s the moment when Cassandra finally finds what neither I nor you nor she knew what it was. It is at that moment, when everything is silent, that you feel everything most intensely. Longing dominates but you know more than ever that now is the time to move on. She will.