Canadian singer/songwriter Lynn Jackson’s catalog has deep Americana roots, in the very best way that tag implies.
On the surface, 2010’s Comin’ Down seemed to deviate from her previous offerings as it delved into rock, funk, klezmer, and even jazz. But a deeper listen revealed that Jackson’s holistic approach didn’t stray from her chosen methodology so much as expand her musical palette.
Her sixth album, Down in the Dust, benefits from the previous exercise; that experimentation only tightened her writing skills. Americana is the predominant genre on this 12-song collection, but not the only one.
At the heart of everything is that voice, which expertly walks a knife’s edge between vulnerability and steely determination. Soft and smoky, it doesn’t need to shout or wail to get the poetry in her lyrics across.
The broken relationship at the heart of “Paper Airplanes” is colored by layers of insistent acoustic guitars; a whining pedal steel accents the loneliness in the tune’s grain. “Truth I Know” is an honest country waltz, embellished not only by pedal steel, but beautifully placed organ and electric piano. Jackson’s protagonist exhorts a lover to let his sadness go before it takes root between them.
“Like Gypsies” is a solid rave-up rocker with a leathery, tough lyric and a killer reggae bassline break.
“Miss Sinaloa” is inspired by journalistic accounts of Ciudad, Juarez, and a drug war that has implications far beyond Mexico. But the song is about human beings: the woman whose nickname the song is titled for and a promising young man are abducted by a cartel and made to disappear. The minor-key, Tex-Mex-tinged melody and poignant cello and guitar flourishes create a new kind of narcocorrido.
“Spare a Little Rain” is an intimate, aching, jazzy acoustic ballad with acoustic guitars, upright bassline, hand percussion, and an electric piano that underscores the lyric’s reflection.
Jackson’s final two numbers, “Echo” and the closing title track (they are separated by a fine cover of Josh Ritter’s “Lawrence, KS”), are both love songs.
In the former, amid fingerpicked acoustic guitars and the ever-present pedal steel, her protagonist gives thanks for the love provided her in the face of darkness and doubt. In the latter, assurance, commitment, and devotion are offered to her beloved in the face of life’s confusion, grit, and messiness, with a weathered yet beautiful harmony vocal by guitarist Chris Boyne. Its well-worn but open-hearted truth sends the set off tenderly and resiliently.
Jackson is an excellent narrative songwriter; she tells stories that the listener can climb inside and inhabit for as long as she wishes, and is haunted by them long after the recording ends.
Down in the Dust is full of such moments. While we should expect nothing less from an artist of her caliber, it would be wrong to expect more, because here, she has already given us everything.