Album Review: Cassandra Jenkins – ‘An Overview on Phenomenal Nature’

Posted: by The Editor

On Cassandra Jenkins’ excellent sophomore record, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, the songwriter welcomes you into a world composed of her experiences and innermost thoughts. As she explores arrangements and moods that run the gambit from sullen and wistful to flatly humorous, Jenkins uses the record to showcase her ability to make any moment feel like a quiet spectacle. This is thanks to her expertise as a narrator. The stories that Jenkins tells are just often light-hearted as they are heartbreaking and performed with the unhurried lightness of chatting with a friend over breakfast.

The record opens with the tranquil rocker that is “Michelangelo.” A song whose title is as inspired by the sculptor as it is the Ninja Turtle, Jenkins creatively explains living with loss. Like a “three-legged dog” she explains how she’s able to get by but hasn’t forgotten what she’s going on without. It stands alone as the only traditional indie rock song in structure and instrumentation. While the rest of the record is lined with shiny pastel synths and wails of saxophone, “Michelangelo” rests on a wandering guitar line.

Much of the record sees Jenkins dealing with the sudden and tragic loss of David Berman in 2019. Berman chose Jenkins to play in the Purple Mountains touring band, and the two had grown close. The stunning “Ambiguous Norway” finds her aboard an airplane, en route to an island called Lyngør in Norway, where she went to escape the grief. The trip itself is more explicitly referenced on the preceding track, “New Bikini.” Here, though, it’s portrayed with more poetry. She may mention purple mountains, but it’s unclear whether she is wishing farewell to the band, or the gorgeous mountains she’s flying above. Lyrics like “My suit came in the mail today / We settled on navy blue / Turns out it fits ok / Over a t-shirt & dress shoes” allow Jenkins to explore the physical aspects and remnants of loss, while other lines like “You’re gone, you’re everywhere” explore the feeling as more ethereal.

While An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is rife with perfect songs, its thematic heart is “Hard Drive.” Jenkins’ spoken word vocal performance is enthralling, and the stories she tells are intimate, if mundane. There’s no reason that someone recounting a run-in should be compelling, but the verse where she runs into someone named Perry at someone named Lowell’s place shines with cinematic drama while remaining small and simple. The cast of characters here, Darryl, Perry, Lowell, and the security guard, seem purposefully underdeveloped. If we knew anything about these people, they wouldn’t be as compelling. Them being nothing but strangers to us, an acquaintance at best to Jenkins, is the point.

I would be remiss not to make a note of “The Ramble.” The vast, seven-minute-long instrumental piece closes the album out and portrays the sound scape of walking through Central Park’s ramble. Like an impressionist painting, the track conveys a gorgeous mental image through scraps of detail. The swirling synths act as wind, the bird calls are interspersed realistically. It’s gorgeous, and never once feels like an afterthought.

An Overview on Phenomenal Nature may not have a sprawling tracklist, but it doesn’t need it. The seven songs that form the album act as separate worlds that draw the listener in. They each carry their own environment and feel like something you could live inside of, never wishing to leave. I hesitate to declare this Jenkins’ masterpiece, as it is only her second full-length record. There’s always time for her to outdo herself. While I feel like a persnickety English teacher, denying an A grade because no piece of work is ever perfect, this is damn near close. Regardless of what she does next, it will have the attention of the leagues of people who have immersed themselves in the gossamer beauty of Phenomenal Nature.

Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal

Eric Bennett | @seething_coast