They say every story has two sides, and the songs on Jessica Bailiff’s fifth album keep this lesson in mind. Each track on At the Down-turned Jagged Rim of the Sky has its own subtitle, in a manner similar to Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, leaving much to the imagination of the listener. While the subtitles might shine a little more light on what’s being sung about, they also deepen the pool of possibility.
But such is the way with Bailiff’s music; it’s the kind that always seems to have some ulterior motive or meaning. She’s often associated with words that set her in one style, and for the most part she keeps her place here, brooding about in dark, haunting fuzz as her voice coos mysteriously, like a siren in the middle of a misty ocean. She’s a little clearer on At The Down-turned Jagged Rim of The Sky though, standing (if not floating) above the noise, and carefully retreating when the music calls for it. Like the album art, there’s a dark kind of prettiness, but she’s still there, peeking through and it’s a presence you can’t ignore once you spot her.
Bailiff makes a quietly dramatic entrance, crashing carefully after an ominous fade-in. “Your Ghost Is Not Enough (Be With Me)” begins with a picked guitar melody, but behind that is a distorted noise that grows with presence with each verse, eerily alternating between haunting and cinematic, and clear and messy at an expertly casual pace. It’s been six years since Bailiff’s last album (2006’s Feels Like Home) and it’s clear that during that time she’s been slowly continuing to master her style. In a way it’s easy to accuse the content on Jagged Rim of being easy for her, most notably the brighter moments such as “Take Me To The Sun (So Warm, So Ready)” and “Firefly (We Could Be Free),” but that doesn’t mean it’s not considered. Somewhat similar to another artist who spent six years on their newest album, the deliberate motions on Jagged Rim bring to mind the careful, troubled world of Scott Walker’s Bish Bosch.
The comparison is probably more flattering than anything else, though. Yes, the music is related in its drawn out construction (Bailiff recorded the album in her home studio, going at her own pace, and surprising her label when asking if they wanted to hear it), and the textures from the guitars, cellos, and pianos do evoke a few more associations, but this feels like something far from Walker’s more theatrical compositions. Bailiff’s work here seems set in its hushed kind of lovelorn matter. On “Goodnight (Hope For More)” she carefully sings “If time was mine/ I’d ride a line/ to somewhere we/ had been before” before a rumbling, dark guitar covers the considered, icy vocal melody. Her world is one that feels constantly harrowed by the presence of shadows. “Sanguine (Please Say a Word)” builds from a turgid organ and runs to a devouring amassing of rigid cello lines and distorted vocals and guitar while “If You Say It (My Friend, My Love)” swirls itself into a deepening haze.
“If You Say It” is one of the songs on Jagged Rim that captures the feeling of the whole album. “It’s time to say/ what needs to be said…it’s here and now/that we need to be,” Bailiff sings, and it sounds like both an ultimatum and passive aggressive threat. Whatever it is, it’s haunting, and it’s bleak, too, like whatever is said will make no difference. This is life At the Down-turned Jagged Rim of the Sky, which isn’t a devastatingly beautiful one, but it’s still engaging in its own deep, personal way.