In botany, there exists both a true and a ‘false’ jasmine flower, the latter from a completely different genus and poisonous for human consumption. There’s nothing toxic about Heather Nova’s seventh studio album, though its modesty may make it less than palatable to thrill seeking listeners. Jasmine petals are waxy and bright; they bloom soon after planting and grow up to two feet per year. A brittle but powerful flower that releases its fragrance at night, its secrets and comforting irregularity make it a perfect subject for an album that reaches us almost entirely unanticipated, having only been announced a month before its release. Recorded with just Heather, her acoustic guitar and a solar-powered laptop – with the occasional flourish of violin – the album’s hushed repertoire is as stark and revelatory in love and anapest as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s ‘Sonnets From The Portugese’. Nova steps into the embrace of her guitar to communicate her poetry, wherein themes outshine chords and her vocal strength formulates more thought even than the lyrics.
Nova is unafraid of repetition, nor of impetuous soliloquy, but her songs are steeped in feeling. ‘Every Soldier Is A Mother’s Son’ cries resolutely against someone who claims that “the world will be a better place after this war is won,” while the funereal landscape of ‘Out In New Mexico’ starts with a line at once familiar and eerie: “These walls around me and the day is long / I fill my lungs with a widow’s song”. The stringed accompaniment surges emotional power into the song, while Nova’s lyrics are sparing. Analogously, the tender buds of a jasmine flower are even more fragrant than the bloom, but to pursue the metaphor further would be to give the illusion of a concept album. Though these songs might very well be able to stand alone – albeit at the risk of being muted by suburban familiarity – it’s Nova’s sorrowful soprano that binds them together, rising above either title or theme. There’s a lovely contrast between vulnerability and strength at work throughout the album, most perfectly on ‘If I Should Die’, which despite its morbid preoccupation openly describes the sensitive power incumbent in marrow, veins and tissue: “Life in each hour is delicate as the jasmine flower in my hands / just for this time / to kiss your face, to hold you now, to feel this grace / Just for this time.”
Just when the echoing, self-conscious female voice was threatening to be overrun by metallic drone and soul and punk pretenders, Nova has reissued her rich sound of melted chocolate. But there’s a nutty rough to go with the smooth; final track ‘Always Christmas’ is surprisingly cheesy and obtrudes from what has gone before like St Nick’s muffin-top. Even as she leaves us with a hesitance to endorse her complacency, it’s Nova’s requited determination to create simple (and dare I say good?) music that redeems her soul-searching moments. Although The Jasmine Flower is beautifully forged, the fear is that it will fall largely on deaf ears, the pop mainstream having all but called for this sort of thing to retire. Whether or not there is still a commercial avenue for Nova’s brand of acoustic realism, The Jasmine Flower remains a fine accomplishment that’s well worth spending some time with.
[Saltwater; March 20, 2009]
Tagged heather nova