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Listen Closely to Julia Jacklin

Why the singer-songwriter’s new album, ‘Crushing,’ is one of the year’s breakthrough records

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Across the first two songs on her excellent new record, Crushing, Julia Jacklin says the word “body” 11 times. “I don’t wanna be touched all the time,” she sings on the jangly “Head Alone,” “I raised my body up to be mine.” On the surface, it’s a plea for personal space in a faltering relationship: In the simple, arresting one-take music video for the song, a petticoat-ed Jacklin slowly breaks off from a man’s embrace and gallops down a residential street, the framing giving her more and more breathing room as she goes. But that lyric is also grounded in a subtle detail she’s observed as a female performer: “As a woman, in my case, as a touring musician,” she said in a press release for the album, “the way you’re touched is different from your male bandmates—by strangers and by those closest to you.”

Jacklin grew up in the Blue Mountains of Australia, a little west of Sydney, and her songs have some of the droll wit of her countrywoman Courtney Barnett. She sings in a low, sleepy croon that recalls the neo-Patsy Cline stylings of Angel Olsen, or perhaps just an exceptionally melodic yawn. Save for an upbeat rocker or two, her songs proceed at an unhurried pace that is perhaps influenced by the wide open spaces of her upbringing: “Trying to get to Melbourne / It’s probably gonna take two days,” she sings on Crushing’s smoldering “Turn Me Down.” In her delivery, that doesn’t sound like a terribly long drive. But just as soon as her songs lull you into comfort or gentle bemusement, they jostle you awake with an unexpected sting. Take “Small Talk,” a track from her 2016 debut Don’t Let the Kids Win. “Zach Braff, you look just like my dad,” she sings, in an absurdist reverie, “Oh what a life it could have been, me in the cradle, you on the screen.” But then the conceit gets a little darker: “Catherine Deneuve, you look just like my mother used to, when she loved me,” Jacklin sings. “Oh, when she loved me!” Just like that, the chuckle you let out during the first verse has become lodged in your throat.

That first record was promising, even if it didn’t distinguish her from the ever-regenerating pack of guitar-driven singer-songwriters. In the few years since, though, Jacklin has grown into a remarkably astute storyteller. The first flash came from a one-off single in June 2017, the stark, striking “Eastwick.” It’s an evocation of grief as well as longing to venture out of a hometown: “You are not in a garden, you are in a store / A single-stemmed rose reaching out for more.” Just as good was the B-side, “Cold Caller,” a playful but quietly poignant interrogation of the biological clock. “Will I be a mother or will I always be a child?” she sings, continuing to fling big questions into the ether, “Does someone come and say, ‘Hey girl, it’s your time?’ What if I’m dancing and I don’t hear the knock?”

With Crushing, Jacklin has continued to sharpen her pencil—this record is precise, measured, and possibly even capable of inflicting lead poisoning. “There’ve been some big life changes for me over the last few years,” she has said of her songs’ newfound clarity, “and I just found it too tiring to try to cover things up with a lot of metaphors and word trickery.” This directness can be heard on the album’s searing first song, called—what else?—“Body.” In a deadpan voice, Jacklin spins a yarn about a fateful vacation, during which a guy gets kicked off a domestic flight for smoking in an airplane bathroom. He is thrilled by his brush with the law (“you looked so proud, couldn’t wait to call a friend”), while his girlfriend is less amused (“I know you’d like to believe it, baby, but you’re more kid than criminal”). By the end of the return flight, the girlfriend has decided to leave him, but the final verse has one of those bleak, signature Jacklin twists: She remembers a compromising photograph the ex once took of her, and idly wonders, “Would you use it to hurt me?” A woman, in such instances, can so quickly be reduced to just a body. Of the song’s raw material, Jacklin has said, “It definitely did not come from my imagination, unfortunately.”

These songs are mildly and at times humorously emasculating: “Do you really wanna give him a microphone? You know that he’ll keep talking long after everyone’s gone home,” she sings at the start of a wry song called “Convention.” But what makes Crushing so refreshing is how Jacklin is able to complicate simple narratives of male oppression and female empowerment in smart, lived-in ways. “Breathe in, breathe out,” she reassures an anxious romantic conquest, “You’re still a good guy.” Of a restaurant an ex was constantly trying to get her to try: “You were right! I liked it!” The record ends with the hushed, introspective acoustic number “Comfort,” which plainly spells out the strangeness of life after a break-up, “Don’t know how he’s doing, but that’s what you get / You can’t be the one to hold him when you were the one who left.”

Crushing, Jacklin has said, was inspired by her “feeling like I never had any space of my own,” stemming from a seemingly endless tour and a long-term relationship that had passed its expiration date: “For a long time I felt like my head was full of fear and my body was just this functional thing that carried me from point A to B, and writing these songs was like rejoining the two.” By the time the album progresses to “Comfort,” you can hear that newfound connection of body, mind, and heart all working in tandem, even in the simple admission of taking responsibility for ending the relationship and making necessary changes in her life. At times Jacklin’s music can feel a bit listless, especially if you’re listening just to its somnolent sonic qualities and letting its lyrics wash over you. But focus on the emotions and scenes she conjures with her carefully chosen words and you start to appreciate Crushing for what it is: Nothing less than an awakening.