Jess Ray’s music defied the conventions of debut releases. She seemed, with 2015’s Sentimental Creatures, to have leapt right into her stride. Now, this year’s Parallels + Meridians jumps equally as far ahead of its excellent predecessors.
The pop hooks, even when they come softly delivered, as in “Humble Heart,” are anthemic in scope. This is the kind of music that you could imagine holding a stadium’s worth of listeners to rapt attention. Yet in further contravention of most stadium-rock radio offerings and pop music in general, the lyrics are full of delightful specificities and the bravery of truth.
As with her earlier hit “Headed for the Hills,” Ray leans hard into a sound built on the road. The aural landscape is wide open, full of miles and deep-breathing expanses. There’s also a rock solid groove that pervades much of the record. Opening with a one-two punch of “O Great Light” and “When I’m With You,” you are immediately transported into joy and mystery.
My wife is a dancer, and so are my daughters. I instead claim the dance handicap of growing up Southern Baptist. I’ll bob along enough to embarrass myself now and again, but it takes a lot to make me do this in public. Yet, you can put on a Jess Ray record and that’s enough to get me moving around the house, hoping the neighbors don’t look in through the windows only to wonder if I have a complex. The beat leans back into a history populated by Des’ree and Lauryn Hill, but it’s definitively Jess Ray.
The lyrics are full of delightful specificities and the bravery of truth.Adam Whipple
Lyrically, Ray continues to favor bare-knuckled expressions of humanity. Yet while her phrasing is comfortably raw, it comes across with the finesse of maturity. “Funny how I could just turn and run from this,” she says in “You and I.” “Maybe I am too afraid; maybe I don’t want to change.” On “No Man,” she opens the track with “Your daddy didn’t love you like you wanted him to,” a call-out of the broken world that burns more with each repetition. Guest vocalist Ellie Holcomb follows it up with a second verse: “Your husband didn’t love you like you wanted him to.” The ache is palpable. Yet the album is also rife with hope.
Ray even braves the revelation of what sounds like a church youth group experience (though it could be any number of similar events):
Years ago, down in Orlando,
I heard an old man speak.
I was not prepared for what he shared,
Sitting in the bleacher seat.
— “Did Not Our Hearts Burn”
Having grown up with the kind of gatherings portrayed here, I am possessed of an ingrained cynicism regarding them. There is the danger, even in such a personal story, of the episode seeming trite at large. Yet in “Did Not Our Hearts Burn,” I find an approachability that encourages me to accept the Spirit’s mysterious work in such instances. There’s even a winking sense of final victory:
The harder the wind will blow
The deeper roots will go,
And the devil is gonna hang,
Oh, the devil is gonna hang,
The devil is gonna hang
From his own gallows.
The comeuppance represented here is reminiscent of the same humor that led medieval Christians to dress Satan up in red pajamas and give him a pitchfork. This, even while Ray evokes a great relief that the last enemies will, in the end, be defeated.
I suppose that’s a great word to describe Parallels + Meridians altogether: relief. It’s everywhere. Relief twirls down from Ray’s voice like autumn leaves. Catharsis pools in the arrangements like water in cupped hands. If you feel the great rumblings of the earth, the nerve-pinched vibrations of the world spinning toward hell, here is a weaving of songs that offers to hold you in an embrace and remind you of the brooding wings of the Holy Spirit.