In 2016 Julia Jacklin came good on what she considered the last roll of the dice. She’d worked the open mic nights of Sydney’s folk scene for five years, harmonised in groups, formed country rock bands, obsessed over Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne when she was a kid. But progress was slow, and her younger sister getting married only compounded her feelings of abject failure disproportionate to her age of 24 years.
The title of her debut album said it all; the nervous energy of ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’ doubled down on the message. It became an indie hit for good reason: quarter-life crises are real; if you haven’t felt stranded at the last chance saloon by your mid-twenties you’re in the minority. Of course the songs were incredible too; in Jacklin’s knack for beautiful, waltzing melodies and her semi-operatic vocal performance; a result of the classical singing lessons she took when she was younger. Her openness also played its part, and does so even more on ‘Crushing’; a record the singer strived to keep as direct and “trick free” as possible.
There really is little confusion to be had here – ‘Crushing’ is a strikingly candid exploration into the highs and lows of the end of a relationship and what comes next. On the surface it seems more like lows and lows, but the more you listen the more you get the full spectrum of what the word ‘crushing’ can mean.
On the opening track, ‘Body’ (which sets out the album’s true, positive theme of reclamation and empowerment), the road song trundles on to Jacklin’s low, breathy tale of her waking up from a bad relationship at a stupid and dramatic moment; when her guy gets them kicked off a plane for smoking in the toilet. “That’s when the sound came in/ I could finally see,” she sings, crushed, perhaps, by her disappointment in herself as much as anything else.
On ‘Pressure to Party’ (one of only three indie rock songs here) ‘crushing’ applies to the excitement and anxiety of getting back out there and dancing with strangers while your friends watch. It’s how you probably thought the whole album would be – songs about agonising, silly fantasies that we wouldn’t live without. ‘Turn Me Down’, on the other hand, is plainly about the pain of requited love (felt most in its middle section where Jacklin’s voice cracks, true to the stories of her breaking down on the studio floor during recording), while ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ is another more smoky number, retelling the end of a relationship eroded by time and overfamiliarity. When Jacklin sings, “I want your mother to stay friends with mine” she might just reach the peak of her power to relate to all of us.
But if there were to be an award for the most crushing moment on ‘Crushing’, it’s ‘When the Family Flies In’ – a song that rather than being about romantic love puts such matters into context. Jacklin’s first piano-led ballad, it’s a song dedicated – as was ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’ – to the passing of a close friend. It’s devastating and beautiful and respectful to their friendship. And completely crushing.
If all of this sounds kind of heavy, it’s because it is. Yet even the slowest of these songs (the closing, sparse lullaby ‘Comfort’, say, or the finger-picked ‘Convention’, about mansplainers) are kept aloft by Jacklin’s flawless voice. Sometimes it’s low and cool, but often it flutters on a mid-sixties melody or borders on the operatic as it has before. It’s the star of the show, whether Jacklin is calling for people to stop touching her the way they do just because she’s a woman on ‘Head Alone’, or seeking a one night stand on the sleepy track ‘Good Guy’.
She says that she doesn’t see this album as a sequel to ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’, although comparisons will of course be abound. The good news for anyone who loved that very different album is that in proving that love and loss are far more intense than our mid-life crises, ‘Crushing’ also supercharges every one of Julia Jacklin’s wonderful talents, which thankfully, not so long ago, she bet on for one last time.