Cassandra Jenkins
My Light, My Destroyer

(Dead Oceans)


Cassandra Jenkins’ last album, 2021’s majestic dream-folk sleeper-hit An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, was supposed to be just that: her last. During its recording, the Manhattan singer–songwriter decided that ten years of releasing music to a largely indifferent public was a perfectly acceptable effort, and so, as the record trickled out during a dark and freezing February lockdown, she prepared to call it quits.

But something – events plus timing, perhaps, multiplied by The Algorithm – had other plans. Maybe it was a combination of the season, Covid’s second wave and the previous month’s White House riots that demanded a record so peaceful, accepting and emotionally wise; maybe it was the sheer quality of Jenkins’ album, full of reflective storytelling and calming aphorisms set to gorgeously melancholic melodies, with unusual arrangements that channelled ambient new-age serenity and billowy Americana. Or maybe it was the presence of third track ‘Hard Drive’, a half-sung/half-spoken, half coming-of-age sigh/half documentary anthology that, on paper, shouldn’t be a hit, but became a cult one across the internet anyway: entirely mesmerising in its attendant stoicism and floating, graceful build over six minutes, it launched the album that surrounded it into new places and ears. “When that record came out and people started to respond to what I had written,” remembers Jenkins now, “my plans to quit were foiled in the most unexpected, heartening, and generous way. Ready or not, it reinvigorated me.”

Accordingly, now – three and a half years later – comes the record Jenkins never anticipated making, the archetypal Difficult Follow-Up. Except, My Light, My Destroyer isn’t that album: that album was recorded by Jenkins early last year and then scrapped a couple of months later, with My Light the phoenix that rose from its flames. And that separation, that cycle of a full (albeit unheard) creative process, between Overview and now, feels like important context for understanding My Light’s power: it goes a long way to explaining why there’s a sense of continuity here but not of repetition, of a personality that feels distinctive but familiar, like bumping into a cherished old friend in a new place.

Most importantly, though, it contributes to the album’s strongest quality: it’s a collection of songs that hasn’t been willed into existence by a pressured musician, but rather one that’s been encountered in the process of diligent exploration and then nurtured to maturity. Nothing here is rushed or fudged. Instead, the results are confident but never flashy, comforting but never bland, and, throughout, quietly riveting.

It starts as simply as an album can, as if to reassure the listener: the first 30 seconds of ‘Devotion’ are just a hushed sung melody and a strummed guitar, before the song begins to blossom slowly with shimmering electric guitar, strings, what sounds like a celesta, and eventually gorgeous upright bass creeping in from low in the mix. Then, in its final minute, a stoic brass arrangement completes the composition and before you’ve even realised it you’re bathed in exquisite texture, colour and detail, the scene apparently set for the next 40 minutes.

There then follows sturdy, earthy indie rock that recalls Wilco’s most welcoming moments (‘Clams Casino’, ‘Aurora, IL’) and the sort of yearning, synth-led emotional songwriting pioneered 40 years ago by the likes of The Blue Nile (‘Delphinium Blue’, ‘Only One’). ‘Tape And Tissue’ is a stately, smokey Bond theme in the making, all vibraphones, brushed snares and edgeless warm-bath brass, and ‘Petco’ sounds like an offcut from The Bends, its final thirty seconds featuring the kind of Big Rock Guitar that Johnny Greenwood churned out with heroic regularity in the 90s: squint your ears and it’s basically ‘My Iron Lung’. There’s a suspicion that Jenkins thinks of the latter as a bit of a guilty pleasure (her knowing giggle at how alt.rock it all is, audible just before the first cranked-up guitar entry, is deliberately left in, unedited) but in the context of My Light’s surrounding wistfulness, the levity is welcome.

So far, so on-trend, perhaps – but two qualities draw together these relatively disparate styles, giving them distinctive Cassandra Jenkins character. The first is Jenkins’ prime musical superpower (which also made Overview so addictive, but here is dialled up even further): that sense of quiet presence, of frictionless self-possession without self-importance, of empathic authority (or authoritative empathy?) that offers insight and friendship simultaneously, of being both documentarian and therapist in equal measure. While not a particularly challenging melodicist, the way Jenkins wraps her words around the tunes is consistently inviting, almost compassionate, and whether it’s a straight-up love song or something more abstract about the stars or Japanese dining (really), the whole of My Light is imbued with a kindness and patience; as on Overview, she switches impressively between speaking and singing registers without a flicker of pretentiousness, and a sense of profound psychological awareness abounds.

The other magical binding agent is the album’s interstitial moments, which blend field recordings and ambient washes of saxophone and keys to varying degrees of abstraction. There are eight songs in the traditional sense on My Light – all of them admirable demonstrations of Jenkins’ considerable craft – but Jenkins’ tenacity in positioning these other five more impressionistic pieces among them illuminates each full song with a sort of custom halo glow. (That’s not to say, incidentally, that the interludes are purely utility moments: ‘Betelgeuse’, in particular, which features a phone recording of Jenkins’ mother marvelling at the heavens and pointing out constellations to her daughter over rolling reeds and treated pianos, is utterly transporting by itself.)

Timeless songs, then, around gentle experimentation: it all adds up to a record that arcs elegantly from beginning to end, with each section perfectly packaged but also combining with its surroundings to contribute to a greater whole. The songwriting is concise, varied and memorable, and the expert, zero-jeopardy playing only contributes to the album’s sense of absolute assuredness. It’s a deeply satisfying listen – one of this year’s best records, to be blunt – but also, zooming out for a second, it’s also deeply satisfying that it exists at all. After all, there’s an increasing feeling amid the frenzied hype-driven instant-gratification pay-to-play pop landscape that Jenkins’ decade-long overnight success is not something that happens much anymore, and My Light, My Destroyer is a testament to why it should: a record this moving and expressive could only have been made by a musician decades into a career, one who has evidently experienced setbacks and letdowns and who has developed the confidence to persevere at her own perfectly poised pace as a result — and been afforded the time to do so. The early-career toil and the scrapped albums are not directly audible in My Light, but it’s also impossible to imagine a record this naturalistic existing without that foundational dimension.

That makes it a record to cherish – the positive side of a sliding doors moment where the alternate reality sees Overview gathering digital moss in some undiscovered Spotify nook, and Jenkins retreating from view. So luxuriate in Jenkins’ wonderful songwriting and knack for subtlety and sequencing, in her great taste and apparently instinctive sense for how to build an album. But also marvel that we have this album at all: the road that has apparently led Jenkins to this peak of her powers may have been long and winding, but that journey makes this record of humble admiration at people, the planet, and the heavens, all the more stirring.