Although released a month ago yesterday, I first lifted An Overview on Phenomenal Nature by Cassandra Jenkins from the digital shelf this past Monday. At seven songs and 32 minutes, it’s a slim volume of ambient poetry – yet, as I discovered, it’s deeper than many works twice its size. It’s also an album meant for listening. Audio snippets, including birds, children, a security guard and distant train, drift through the soundscape alongside flutes, saxophones, strings and synths, as well as the other instruments you’d expect; and, lyrically, she shares insights and questions gleaned from the rudimentary realities of life in the 21st century.
The result, in some respects, is a collection of metaphysical meditations that marry Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart to Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby, if that makes sense. The music alternates between a dense fog, with her lilting vocals a beacon, and more diffuse tunes – it’s quite cool, in other words, somewhat akin to a thousand fingers caressing the skin, gentle as feathers yet weighty as sin. The song cycle opens with “Michelangelo,” which sets the stage with its opening admission: “I’m a three legged dog/working with what I got/and part of me will always be/looking for what I lost…”
Some of the songs were inspired by the passing of singer-poet David Berman. In 2019, she signed on as a guitarist with his new Purple Mountains band when, a few days later, he committed suicide. Although they’d just met, she took his death hard – as would anyone, I think. “New Bikini,” the second track, broaches the subject head-on: “After David passed away/my friends put me up for a few days/off the coast of Norway/and every morning they would say/baby, go jump in the ocean/it’s cold enough to get your blood moving/the water/it cures everything.”
The piece de resistance, however, is “Hard Drive,” which shares certain traits with the song “Coney Island Baby.” Lyrically, though, it swaps out Lou Reed’s rockin’ staccato pontification on the glory of love for a spoken-word soliloquy about the glory of self – or, more precisely, her gradual acceptance of it, with the meaning of “hard drive” evolving as the song develops. It’s transcendence set to song, just about.
“Ambiguous Norway” is another thing of wonder, the result of the same Nordic odyssey she references in “New Bikini.” In the aftermath of Berman’s death, she discovered that she’d forgotten to cancel a planned vacation to Norway – so off she went. But what she found wasn’t the escape she sought; instead, she saw signs of Berman in the Scandinavian environs. “Landing in Oslo/there’s still something in the air/no matter where I go/you’re gone, you’re everywhere.”
The album concludes with “The Ramble,” a hypnotic instrumental that integrates her field recordings from New York’s Central Park into the wordless song. It’s the audio equivalent of that moment each morning when sleep begins to lift and we drift into consciousness. As is the album as a whole, it’s mesmerizing.
The track list: