The Good: Amazing vocals, Good lyrics, Moments of musical intrigue
The Bad: SHORT, Repetitive, Moments music is very average.
The Bottom Line: My hopes that Heather Nova would have another perfect album with her obscure The Jasmine Flower are dashed, though the album is still pretty good!
Despite what the moving of my reviews to my blog might appear to indicate, my favorite musical artist is Heather Nova. Thus far, I have only managed to move my review of her album Siren (click here for that review!) to the blog. But for my recent birthday, my wife bought me two new (well one new, one new-to-me) albums and my eagerness to review them trumps my slow-going moving of old reviews. The first new album I received was The Jasmine Flower, which is currently Heather Nova's latest album. It is also one which was never released in the United States, so U.S. audiences either have to buy .mp3 versions of the album or they have to pay a premium to import it.
Unfortunately, it is a tough sell for me to argue that The Jasmine Flower is worth paying more than virtually any other c.d. for. While the album continues the career of Heather Nova and continues her penchant for theme albums, it suffers from a lot of repetition and the short duration of the album. Moreover, after the first song, there is little Nova does that sounds truly different from anything else she has ever done. While one might want to argue that this follows well with the album's theme of drifting, it is a somewhat unsatisfying experience, especially for those of us who waited years to get the album in. But if South is Heather Nova's love album, Storm is her loss album and Redbird is her rebirth album, The Jasmine Flower stands as an album of self-discovery with no answers, but a pleasant-enough journey.
With only a dozen tracks occupying 42:28, The Jasmine Flower is a disappointingly short album, though it represents the creative talents of Heather Nova. Nova wrote and performed all of the songs. She provides the primary guitar which dominates the instrumentation on each track and she sings all of the songs without any credited background singers. Given that her husband produced the album, as he has done most of her works, this seems like exactly the album she wanted to produce.
What the listener is treated to, then, is an album which is light pop-rock that is dominated by a string (orchestral) accompaniment. The songs, like "Looking For The Light" and "If I Should Die" are very much the "one woman and a guitar" sound one might expect from Heather Nova and instead of having any keyboard accompaniment, the backing instrumentation is from a string quartet. The result is an album which is almost homogeneously mellow. Nova moves toward a Folk sound on "Every Soldier Is A Mother's Son" and "Hollow." And despite the sweeping crescendos and falls on "Beautiful Storm," only "Always Christmas" truly rocks with an energy that is anywhere near ecstatic.
The sense of mood, then, is occasionally oppressive making The Jasmine Flower sound more like another album consumed by loneliness and loss than exploration. The listener's journey is not nearly as focused as other recent Heather Nova albums and the instrumental homogenization borders on the monotonous. And, unlike other Nova albums where it is easy to admire the attempt, songs like "Follow Me In Grace" and "Looking For The Light" stumble more than soar.
So, how does The Jasmine Flower manage to score so highly in my pantheon? If I'm not biasing the rating just because Heather Nova is my favorite musical artist, she succeeds enough to recommend and get into the upper ranges of "average" territory by exhibiting an amazing and pure voice. Heather Nova has wonderful range, though she sticks largely to the soprano range on The Jasmine Flower. She is articulate and songs like "Say Something" succeed because Nova presents her music with a clarity and purity few artists possess. She is emotive with her vocals and she combines the emotion with articulation that makes the song resonate.
Also, Heather Nova has generally wonderful lyrics. I write "generally wonderful" because on The Jasmine Flower, she has some lyrical missteps and it seems like she is running out of things to say. Unlike many of her other albums, on The Jasmine Flower, Nova seems to be stretching to write enough to actually fill a track. As a result, many of the songs on The Jasmine Flower are ridiculously short, but push up the runtime by repeating a few stanzas or refrains. As well, Nova moves into some pretty lame rhymes on "Follow Me In Grace," where she uses "green/unseen," "heart/heart," "voice/choice," and "go/low" which all seem very simplistic for her.
That said, the album gets off to an exceptional start with "Ride," a song so powerful I cried the first time I heard it. Nova sings of her frustration and lack of sexual release with surprisingly poignant lines like "I don't know if I took a wrong turn / Cuz the birds don't fly low like they used to / The water's rising but I'm bone dry / And I don't come for you like I used to / And I need a stranger to tell me I'm beautiful / I want to hold on to nothing and ride" ("Ride"). Nova writes lines that have a frankness that is uncommon in pop or adult contemporary and she opens the album with the sense of insecurity and loss that make for compelling music when handled so maturely.
As well, The Jasmine Flower moves into the political, which is something I cannot recall Nova doing before now. She describes both the loneliness of being apart from a loved one with "Always Christmas" and the futility of war with "Every Soldier Is A Mother's Son." While I am tempted to observe the timely nature of "Every Soldier Is A Mother's Son," Nova does an excellent job of keeping the song universal and generally antiwar with its lines "I keep his picture beside me / I see the dream in his eyes / I watch the light disappearing / Into unsettled skies / You say the world will be a better place / After the war is won / You say no sacrifice too great / But Every soldier is a mother's son." While it is tempting to say that the arrogance of the world being better through warfare is a distinct Bushism, it goes beyond that and Nova makes an exceptionally successful social statement through the song.
But in the end, The Jasmine Flower is more limited than her other works and it feels limited, not intimate. While her voice is amazing and she clearly has something to say, it is hard not to wish she was saying more with the album. Fans of Heather Nova will want this, but they are likely to find themselves listening to it far less after the initial novelty of its newness wears off.
The best song is "Ride," the low point is "Looking For The Light."
For other albums by wonderful female singer-songwriters, please check out my reviews of:
Fearless Love - Melissa Etheridge
One More Drifter In The Snow - Aimee Mann
The Green World - Dar Williams
For other music reviews, please visit my index page for a full listing of what I have reviewed!
© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.