Album Review: jess joy – PATREEARCHY

[Joyful Noise; 2021]

In 2019, LA musician and performance artist Jessica Ramsey split with her longtime musical (and romantic) partner Andrew Martin, but on seemingly amicable terms. With their band Moon Honey now a thing of the past, Ramsey is working under the stage name of jess joy and is here to flaunt her individual talents, which were relatively fettered by being in a band before; her hinted-at bravado never did bloom fully. But things are different now. On her debut solo record PATREEARCHY, to say Ramsey carves out her own image would be an understatement – so much so that it’s likely some listeners will find difficulty latching onto the weird world that thrives in her mind and music. 

Although idiosyncratic, jess joy’s world does not materialize without pulling from the wacky well shared by a few brilliant provocateurs along the way. In one moment, jess joy can come out of left field and invade comfort zones with operatic bizarreness, in a way reminiscent of Kate Bush, but in the next, she can bring her listeners back to earth with her cooing warble similar to Joanna Newsom. Though jess joy’s brand of art-pop can be, at times, eerily reminiscent of the aforementioned greats, PATREEARCHY is still a relative breath of fresh air, pushing boundaries where so many fail to.

The bizarre singer-songwriter and overall multi-hyphenate is expressive and, at times, excessive, but this debut effort wouldn’t be as memorable if she held anything back. From the get-go, jess joy is at her most unabashed eccentric self, yelping and trembling through vibrant pastoral fields of harp and twinkling guitars on opening track “bless your name”. With the help of Deerhoof drummer Greg Saunier (who has also produced for Xiu Xiu), the song’s extroverted pop exuberance pairs perfectly with jess joy’s singing about self-liberation from the constraints of heretical Evangelical theology, particularly regarding shame and the self-flagellation that shame breeds.  

Similarly, the shimmering “her0” is overtly colorful, seemingly as an affront to the constraints of tradition, as she sings: “i don’t want to fight for your PIECE OF PIE / i don’t want live in YOUR SHADOW / i don’t want to be YOUR TROPHY WIFE,” she insists. The suffocating anxiety and disdain of living in the shadow of a man is a prevalent topic coursing throughout the record, hence the title PATREEARCHY. Though her intentions and album title are a bit on the nose, jess joy spins stories of male infidelity and abuse compellingly with her vivid poeticism and painted images of both oppression and deliverance.

jess joy cuts to the point via a Joan Baez cover on “silver dagger”, singing that “‘all men are false’, says my mother / ‘they’ll tell you wicked, lovin’ lies’.” On “apple of his i”, her message is even louder and clearer: “my man: he don’t like to clean things up / if something breaks, he would rather let me rust and that’s just fine / but why does he lie? / he says i am the treasure of his life / and yet he goes out every night / just like a shovel to a mine / to find a love that’s new and bright.” A much more insidious kind of darkness and doubt creep into her words on “betwixt between”, as she croons about being stuck and indifferent, which is a worse feeling than feeling angry.

But, through this emotional immobility, jess joy also finds ways to express herself and channel these feelings into other moments that are musically beautiful and lyrically bizarre, most notably on “a love song”. Many artists and bands have songs titled as such (or at least, in some variation), and are often easily forgotten for that very reason – not jess joy’s, though. Bombarded with shocking metaphors of bodily mutilation, the track sees the singer slowly degrade and dismember herself until there’s nothing left, physically and emotionally. It’s an oddly depressing song for the majority of the experience, until her final words transpire: “I said o! I’m torn apart / i suppose I’ll just learn to play guitar / with my heart and I will write a love song unto me / how else can i start lovin’ me?” While she at first seems stuck, she persists just so that her broken heart is heard and, of course, graphically seen.

At the end of both “well, i’ll be damned” and her cover of “silver dagger”, she inserts recordings of a conversation that provide broader context and an added inspirational layer toward her cutting exploration into a male-dominated world. The two-part audio sample finds jess joy in conversation with her best friend, mother, and aunt, detailing stories about unwed mothers, hiding a pregnancy, and insane asylums. To some, these added bits may feel tedious, but to the ears and hearts of most, they give credence to how pervasive abuse and exploitation of women is and has been for years. 

It may not be apparent at first, but jess joy is much more than the twisting theatrics of her wailing voice. In fact, she has something worthwhile to say. Whether it’s her profound insight into what it means to be a woman in 2021, or her cutting commentary regarding religion, which suffocated her as a child growing up in the Bible Belt of Louisiana, jess joy’s thoughts are a liberating response to years of oppression. It’s difficult to indulge in a fairy-tale world that feels like it is in constant danger of dovetailing into a hellish nightmare, but if you take the time, it’s easy to be impressed at the complex structure that jess joy has built; it has a foundation indebted to greats before her, but towers with uniqueness. This is unabashedly jess joy – messy, but an artist seeking ways to fully exorcise her complete artistic vision.