Jesca Hoop has returned once again with an album consisting of evocative, subtly haunting and deeply empathetic songs, each delivered in her crystal clear voice. Hoop’s music sometimes takes a backseat to her vocal performance, which often successfully allows the music to support her voice, but at other times can push Stonechild into desultory moments. The best songs on this album reach the point at which you would expect the song to end, and then continue. When this works, it works well in subverting our 3-minute-30-second expectations for songs and creates a rich, exploratory emotional space. When this technique doesn’t work, you can start to feel the album’s grip on you loosen to such a degree that you might lose interest altogether. Fortunately, the former scenario is one in which you more often than not find yourself while listening to Stonechild.
The album starts strong, with “Free of the Feeling,” a quiet song that nevertheless holds a lot of power with its lyrics that explore the primal instincts which drive humans and guide them naturally. That kind of storytelling, which mixes in poetic ideas and feels as if it could come from an Appalachian porch, is evident throughout the album even when Hoop explores ideas specific to modernity, as she does in “Outside of Eden” which is sung vaguely from the perspective of an A.I. girlfriend.
But then again Hoop excels on the universal, ever-relevant questions about life. “Why love if loving never lasts?” she wonders on the slightly foreboding “Footfall to the Path.” And what are we learning from our parents, and how they treat each other? She wonders in “Old Fear of Father,” ruminating about the carefully taught gender roles men and women must often contend with, and consciously overcome for a healthy relationship to the world around them. A later track, “All Time Low” deals with nothing less than the common trickery of capitalism in an industrialized world, which encourages the idea of merit-based success and social mobility, which encourages workers to work harder but doesn’t actually get them anything. As Hoop bluntly states, “if he works that much harder, his ship might come in… [and] if he signs up his soul and works his hands to the bone,” he might get ahead.
An early track, “Shoulder Charge” is one of the best of the album, excelling at making something feel simultaneously specific and universal. Hoop sings about wearing “leathers” and mascara as armor before heading out, so as to put up a wall between herself and those who might wish to breach it. Besides strangers, she doesn’t want to be vulnerable in front of friends either. She describes practicing her “hellos” so as to pass for fine and happy. She goes onto describe a personal pain that feels so bad, but which she doesn’t believe anyone would understand or care to hear about. Eventually, she does share and feels the “fucking relief” at getting it off of her chest. Additionally, she finds—as we all often do, when we share pain, anxiety, experience, or fear—that “nothing one can go through/has not been shared by two,” at least. For the first part of the song, Hoop’s voice is supported by tremulous instrumentation that invokes her inner turmoil and unease, and the desire to burst forth with the truth. When she finally does, the song opens up to match the catharsis. In her surprising way, the song then dips down the mountainside after reaching its peak and “expected” endpoint. The comedown is quiet but calmer than the first section, so we get the satisfaction of the after-catharsis as well, and don’t just leave at the moment of release. It’s an engrossing way to hear music, and in this case, it takes you on that emotional journey of fear, release, and calm relief which indicates that letting your fears out in this way will carry lasting peaceful effects.
Stonechild isn’t without its darkness, although often Hoop’s lyrics are much darker than they sound in the final production. “Death Row” is another fine track, which manages to combine almost jovial hand claps with a refrain of “may you have a good death, a very good death” and make it sound un-ironically uplifting.
A few quieter, even stagnant, moments exist, specifically in “Red White and Black” and “01 Tear,” but generally Hoop packs enough interesting storytelling and subtly powerful performance moments into Stonechild to help you let those moments slide. This efficient, clear album ends on “Time Capsule,” which sounds not unlike something you would hear slinking out of a music box. Stonechild itself could come from a particularly gothic music box, with its focus on clear melodies and instant personal connection. It’s a glimpse into a certain, mythological nighttime of the soul, but it makes clear that night does not need to be full of terrors.