Album Review: Jessica Pratt – Here In The Pitch

[Mexican Summer/City Slang; 2024]

Time is a fickle thing; abstract and yet always present. We ascribe our passage through existence chapters big and small, from millennia to years, from days to minutes. We pass along, bobbing like buoys, careening from one moment to the next. We are always existing now. We were existing then. And, with any luck, we will be existing next. But for now, we are stuck inside this continuum.

Sometimes, in art, things seem to exist all at once. Jessica Pratt’s music has been bending and compressing time since 2012, when her debut self-titled LP arrived out of the blue like a missive from a lost era. Her voice was strange — a creaky, feathery, dusty instrument — and her songs were solitary works built upon her gentle, deceptively simple (but actually often quite deft and intricate) fingerpicked nylon-stringed guitar playing. Her lyrics were rife with rich words and images but, much of the time, felt just to the left of being able to actually be pinned down, and this unknowable quality lent the album an even deeper layer of anachronism. It felt like the folk figures of the past — Karen Dalton especially, and those in her vein — had somehow come back in the form of the young San Francisco songwriter.

Only it wasn’t from a lost era, of course. It was now. And Pratt, impossibly, doubled down on those atemporal qualities that made her sound so inviting and unique; even amongst the singer-songwriter ilk of the 2010s, nobody quite sounded like Jessica Pratt. Her two subsequent albums — 2015’s On Your Own Love Again and 2019’s Quiet Signs — saw her dive even deeper into quiet, dusky, reverb-drenched rooms. Especially on Quiet Signs, Pratt’s songs were so steeped in mystique and stillness, hardly moving and yet constantly unfurling. They’re ephemeral, mercurial, so diaphanous they’re almost always threatening to evaporate as you hear them.

After last her two albums, both of which were very short in duration but full of atmosphere and texture, her fourth album, Here in the Pitch, finally sees Pratt toying with her formula ever so slightly. While actually even shorter than her last album’s nearly-28 minutes, Here in the Pitch feels heavier, more substantial, and more robust than almost anything she’s done before. Where before her songs would sometimes be just beyond reach, spinning prettily out in the gauze, the songs on Here in the Pitch feel a touch more tangible and, even though her incredibly impressionistic lyrical style remains intact, more emotionally resonant.

It helps that it starts with drums. For the first time ever, Pratt has invited percussionists to drum on a few of these songs, and it’s the first thing we hear upon pressing play. “Life Is” is a perfect encapsulation of what’s to come on Here in the Pitch. At its core, it’s nothing terribly new for Pratt: softly strummed guitars provide a foundation for her emotive, airy voice. But the drums, and some lowkey touches of Mellotron and keys. It’s like some lost Skeeter Davis cut; you half expect her to sing about the end of the world. The foggy quality is still there on “Life Is” (and across the album) as Pratt still loves her some reverb and thick room tone. The songs still sort of land like half-remembered dreams. But there’s so much more presence now that the curtain has been lifted a bit, if even just a few feet.

The following “Better Hate” is classic Pratt, with its bossa nova-lite rhythm (one she favors through much of this album) to the guitars and the woody percussion. The keyboards hanging in the background almost sound like something from Beach House’s self-titled album, with their lo-fi quaintness providing a whimsical backdrop for Pratt’s voice. “World On a String” is sparer, with Pratt’s voice dipping into its lovely lower end with its trilling vibrato. Later, there are some plinking keys and brushed drums as the song opens up. “I want to be the sunlight of the century,” she sings, with what sounds like a light chorus effect. 

That line is as good as any to use to reiterate that Pratt’s lyrics remain mostly quite abstract, conveying feeling more than any concrete sense of narrative or clear meaning. Take this verse from “By Hook or By Crook”: 

Some evil innocence, wild century can’t express
A gesture left in summer’s mind
Autumn’s come to find
And it’s the end of the dreams again

Over the song’s swaying bossa nova breeze, a verse like this lands like a giant, beautiful question mark. It’s like looking at a vivid impressionist painting; unable to decipher its meaning, we decipher its emotional current. And in a voice like Pratt’s, which comes out like intertwined crystalline strings, almost anything sounds good.

Sometimes, the songs are still a little too murky or transitory. “Nowhere it Was” is carried by some very sparse guitars, surges of synth, and echoing plinks, but it doesn’t really amount to much — not aided by its inscrutable lyrics. At the midway point, as she reaches into her higher register, her singing almost sounds like Alison Goldfrapp at her most noirish and alien, but it’s not enough to save the song from being too lost in its own mire. And the instrumental “Glances” is pleasant enough, but on a nine-song album that’s just a hair over 27 minutes, it feels mighty risky to include something that’s essentially just placid filler.

Luckily, the highs outweigh the lows. Best of all is “Empires Never Know”, a rare piano ballad. The piano sounds like it’s being played off a warped record from 80 years ago, but Pratt’s voice is rich and close. The chorus is just as abstract — “I never was what they called me in the dark” — but the melody is so immediately memorable. The song also has some super light studio trickery, backmasking her voice in snippets here and there to create a sort of illusory sound. There’s also a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it horn part and some shuffling percussion. It may not sound like it on paper, but “Empires Never Know” is the most unlike anything else on this record and also a very promising blueprint of where Pratt could take her sound in the future while still maintaining her very distinct artistic voice.

The truth is, if you have never been a fan of Pratt’s work before, it’s unlikely you’ll find much more here to grasp onto. The songs on Here in the Pitch still peddle in many of her old tricks (even down to her favored strumming patterns), and they still emanate from some decade outside of our own. And there is still a bit of an out-of-reach, transient quality to them, like ornate stencils. But that same placeless quality that’s long been a mark of her art has been set to some mighty good melodies here, and also given a much-needed jolt via more instrumental heft. And by closing with a song about how “the storyline goes on forever”, I think Pratt has given us some evidence that even if we can’t break through the space-time continuum, perhaps we can sing through it.