8.1 BEST NEW RECORD
Nevado Music / 2016
Like a lot of people, Jordan Klassen had a rough patch in his twenties. And, like not quite so many other people, he channeled that internal chaos into music; starting in 2009 Klassen released a string of records which progressively sharpened his heart-on-sleeve lyricism as well as an ethereal sound he calls "fairy folk". 2013's Repentance, his label debut, was a thematic apotheosis as well as musical one - as the title suggests, it was the turning point in a years-long battle against depression, doubt, and existential angst.
That stormy decade behind him now, Klassen's new record finds him sailing distinctly calmer seas, but sorting through the driftwood of those past wrecks for clues to what exactly happened during those years, and why. Javelin is the sound of an artist excavating his own history - visiting a familiar nighttime spot, but returning this time with sunlight shining overhead. As he sings on album opener "Glory B", the goal is to "Hold your memory up to the light/Memory up to the light".
That need for fresh perspective informs everything about Javelin, all the way through to where and how the album was recorded; instead of tapping his usual collaborators at home in Vancouver, Klassen purposely stranded himself at El Paso's Sonic Ranch with a mountain of unfamiliar instruments and recording equipment. Alone, with absolute freedom and a personal mandate to push himself, Klassen emerged with a record that's unrecognizable to anyone familiar with his prior work, and one that sits in the sonic space between 90's new-age acts like Enya, and Paul Simon's Graceland. There are faint traces of his old sound on Javelin, but they're subsumed by a unitive pop sensibility that prioritizes rhythm and atmosphere over the narrative ethic of folk.
As an entirely self-produced album, Javelin is impressive. The new-age aesthetic pervades but never overpowers, and Klassen conjures ear-tingling soundscapes with unorthodox instrumentation, like the cascading tropical riff on the joyous, African-influenced "St. Fraser". In lieu of an electric guitar on "Baby Moses", he runs an old synthesizer through an arpeggiator for a deliciously snarled solo, and on the same song - a baroque pop gem full of halting, seesawing strings where the singer compares his naive younger self to the oblivious infant in a river-borne basket - sparkling "My Girls" synths deck out the infectious chorus.
Klassen sees his mother, whose love of Enya was part of the album's stylistic inspiration, as its "patron saint", and her struggle with breast cancer (she's since recovered) is the subject matter of the album's most emotionally poignant track. A musician herself, she introduced him to the artform as a child, and on "Delilah", Klassen compares the biblical traitoress to the chemotherapy treatment that's sapped her strength. It's a metaphor as perfect as it is brutal: "I have seen you take the poison/Seen the hair fall from your brow".
The lyrics on "Delilah" are probably the strongest Klassen has ever written, but Javelin is nevertheless a record where the words are part of the sonic tapestry more than the primary focus - he uses them as emotional scaffolding rather than pulling a distinct narrative forward with them, and the lilting, reverb-draped vocals are often difficult to make out. Instead, individual phrases flare in the ear, like the striking, mystical wedding imagery on the luminous "We Got Married". Appropriate to an album about sifting through the past, many lines allude to intensely personal moments, disparate memories he's drawing together to form a more comprehensive map of the past. And while those moments might be superficially meaningless to us, Klassen's retrospective odyssey is intelligible thanks to the emotion in his delivery and the gratifying experimental pop the album is filled with. When he holds his "memory up to the light", it's a joy just to watch the colors dance on the wall.