Album Review: Julia Jacklin – PRE PLEASURE

[Polyvinyl / Transgressive; 2022]

Julia Jacklin’s third album PRE PLEASURE offers her most frank, grounded collection of songs to date. To suggest that this makes it less poignant than its predecessor Crushing is ludicrous. In fact, her vivid lyricism shines brightest when she isn’t caught in her own emotional web. 

Jacklin’s craft for storytelling was immediately obvious on her debut LP Don’t Let The Kids Win. It’s honestly the kind of debut album that never quite felt like a debut album. The title reveals as much: it’s a playful prod against ageism in the music industry, where talent is often harvested and exploited before artists can fully process their own place in the world. Jacklin was honestly way ahead of the curve, penning country-tinged songs that felt worldly yet sanguine, their weight often alleviated with a timely zinger or quirky observation. 

The record immediately endeared her to critics and fans. The prospect of having an audience, however, can do strange things to a psyche. You have a stage where you can explore your innermost thoughts to the fullest, but doing it over and over, it starts to feel like, well, a job. But unlike doing assembly line work (side note: Jacklin used to work at an essential oils factory), managing your emotions becomes a full-time occupation, as there’s a constant pressure to ferment your experiences into your work (not to mention dealing with the fallout of having those experiences made public).

With follow-up Crushing, Jacklin made a devastating break-up record, documenting her coping process to the urgent minutiae. Songs such as “Turn Me Down” sit right as that intense flux of letting go and moving on from a relationship, something she navigates with her usual spry songwriting talents. It does beg to wonder, however, the merits of capturing an individual’s most urgent states in melody and words, other than catharsis. 

Truth be told, there’s an unsettling voyeurism within music criticism in lionizing ‘bravery’ of total confession, to the point where it becomes downright uncomfortable. Similarly, covering records such as Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There in the past felt like an invasion of the artist’s privacy. Especially when equating that to superlatives like ‘captivating’ or ‘genius’. It makes one second guess on the virtues of making artists ‘open up’ and reveal all, capturing the immensity of that act in terms as ‘self-discovery’ and ‘authenticity’, which feel hollow in their ubiquity.

Recording PRE PLEASURE in Montreal, Jacklin was indeed entertaining the thought of ‘opening up’. But how to achieve that without it feeling like, well, work? For one, she rekindled her love of songs and musicals that exult in the maudlin and romantic, subjecting her ears to Robyn, Luther Vandross and Celine Dion; bona fide torch songs that are unapologetic about opening the emotional floodgates. 

Secondly, she traded the guitar for keyboard as primary writing tool, inciting newfound clarity and curiosity in her own creative process. These shifts can be considered acts of generosity, and, in turn, that generosity permeates back through these 10 songs.

On opener “Lydia Wears A Cross”, Jacklin paints such a resplendent, wistful imagery of a childhood memory, you’d wish it was converted into an anime in the tone of From Up On Poppy Hill. She sings about her and her schoolmate Lydia “still wearing a cross” sitting back-to-back in their “pretty” school uniforms, listening to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. “I’d be a believer / If it was all just song and dance,” Jacklin sings with the same solemn serenity as someone singing to herself in the shower. It’s such an incredible lyrical hook because she reconciles both the potency of belief with the growing pains of God-fearing youth, and the ripple effects on the rest of your life. The song never wavers, only picking up strength and momentum with fuzzy, rib-tickling guitars and live drums bolstering the drum computer and sparse piano flourishes. It never goes into full-blown pop transcendence like a Cher or Celine Dion, obviously, and that feels part of the point. “Lydia Wears A Cross” remains grounded in the very scene it sets: a girl in a Christian school imagining this big world waiting for her, savouring the wide-eyed rebellion of listening to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jacklin’s buoyant sense of humor is peppered all over these songs. Just spelling out PRE PLEASURE in all caps plainly expresses the DNA of this record. It rekindles with the foreplay, the imagining, the dreaming that compels us to keep going. As she does on all her songs, Jacklin gracefully leapfrogs the pitfall of navel gazing in asking the Big Questions. On “Love, Try Not To Let Go”, she longs for love as if it’s a sentient entity listening on the other side of the line. “I’ll give you time to figure some things out,” slowing down the pace of her voice, almost letting the syllables melt away. 

That woozy reverie is briefly underpinned by musings of her hometown and unresolved courtships, and the song promptly unfolds like one of those collapsing dreams in Inception, bursting with volatile guitars and drums as Jacklin belts out the main hook. It expresses the perseverance and fragility of believing in love, and how that fortitude can be swept away by even the smallest of invading insecurities. Jacklin has quipped that she made her band watch the running-up-the-stairs scene from Rocky before recording this song, just to illustrate. 

On PRE PLEASURE we hear Jacklin emerging from the other side of strife with newfound lucidity. On “Body” – one of the more gripping moments on Crushing – she captured the shell-shocking experience of physical intimacy as something invasive. With “Ignore Tenderness” she examines the root of that stressor with a playful disposition, perusing how the innate confusion of religious upbringing informed her notions of sexuality. It unfolds as a sweet, sweeping unraveling of Jacklin’s own sexual agency and acquired wisdom, bolstered by open-the-blinders string flourishes. 

PRE PLEASURE is not a record that screams ambition sonically, and that’s a big part of why the songs feel so soothing and accessible. Our psyches are already saturated with luxury villas and exotic holiday destinations, whereas these tunes enwrap you like a charming, relatively quotidian apartment space. One reckons the grounded, relaxed atmosphere helped Jacklin unravel some of her most elemental songwriting. 

Guided by a sparse organ, “Too In Love To Die” is one of the most naked admonishments of love through song, approximating Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You” in its emotional breadth. Spellbound by love as some sort of plot armor, Jacklin imagines the ground softening as her plane crashes, and cars on the highway magically stopping on the highway like Disney effigies. “I’m too in love to die / God couldn’t take me now / Surely the love I feel for him / Would save my life somehow”; in less capable hands, such a line would feel either cheesy or naive, but through the prism of Jacklin’s piercing affection, even the most ardent atheïst has to feel something.

Sparked by the Australian songsmith’s wit, PRE PLEASURE is an express lane on how to achieve compassion for yourself and your direct surroundings, even as things inevitably turn south. The closing track “The End Of A Friendship” documents at face value the exact breaking point between two once-close individuals, dovetailing noisy guitar textures with a big Hollywood crescendo (courtesy of Owen Pallett). It’s beautifully executed, hard-won and teeming with heart.

Though her debut album told us there’s virtue to having some miles on the soul, PRE PLEASURE kind of does the inverse: a more seasoned, matured artist letting the kid in herself win and giving herself permission to swing away at life. “Can I give my love to everyone somehow?” Jacklin muses out loud on “Love, Try Not To Let Go”. She may have answered her own question.