Enough musical and lyrical intrigue to warrant dozens of listens.
I saw Jessica Pratt perform at a festival a few summers ago. Across the grounds, iLoveMakonnen was giving a characteristically loud, noisy DJ set. After roughly 15 minutes of trying to whisper her songs over the din, Pratt and her accompanist walked off stage in frustration. Besides this being an all-time terrible scheduling decision, the event exposed something about Pratt’s work: She’s committed to her supremely minimal, intimate aesthetic, so much so that she’d rather not perform at all than sacrifice her music’s identity. This trait returns on Quiet Signs, Pratt’s newest record. The whole album is less than a half-hour long, the chord progressions and sounds at a bare minimum. It’s out of these starkly empty frameworks that Pratt builds a collection of nine songs that stun in their simplicity and potency.
The best tracks here escape the normal trappings of quiet music and reach for emotions normally reserved for bombastic compositions: ecstasy, anger, turmoil and more. The breezy “Here My Love” showcases this well, as it reaches an endearing sensuality and a warmth of spirit. Lines like “try to keep my worries safe from where they’ll do you harm/ But I can’t be sure, endeavors I’m depending on,” signal the give-and-take of a relationship and the constant anxiety over a potential eruption. The song never suggests this dissolution, however, as Pratt eventually reaches the optimistic conclusion that “If I were in contemplation/ I’d stay for a while.”
“Crossing” has a darker, more agitated feeling. This comes mostly from the music alone, with Pratt nearly popping her guitar strings as she plucks the arpeggios, all backed by heavy, low piano chords. Hats off to anyone that can understand a single word Pratt sings, as the production quality on this track is noticeably rougher than any other, though the moodiness of the cut is prevalent. The closer, “Aeroplane,” embodies a spirit of adventure that carries the album out on a triumphant note. Not that the music is so experimental, but the emotional timbre feels curious, especially as the reedy drones swell under Pratt’s multitracked voice and the song builds into tense, dominant harmonies.
On top of the lyrical and atmospheric successes, the musical elements are some of Pratt’s strongest to date. The instrumental focus is primarily on voice, piano and guitar, but every new addition is purposeful and changes the direction of the track drastically. “Fare Thee Well” begins normally enough, with slow guitar strums and Pratt’s whisper, but it evolves into something unforeseen. The addition of high-pitched organ notes, bouncing electric piano and a killer flute solo from Al Carlson opens the sound world up into a summery expanse. The barely audible synths that underlie “Silent Song” serve an opposite purpose to the orchestration on “Fare Thee Well,” as the harmonies add a chilly tension and am eerie, otherworldly atmosphere.
Musical wonders abound throughout, but the whole album is drenched in a massive reverb that leads to mixed results. On the first track, “Opening Night,” the spacious mix works in Pratt’s favor. It sounds as if her piano melodies and wordless vocals were recorded by a single microphone dangling from a chapel ceiling, giving the music a ghostly hum. On other tracks, it’s more distracting. “This Time Around” is achingly gorgeous, with Pratt’s simple vocal melody running over what sounds like a mellotron, but her singing is so distant and muddled that it feels a little washy. Clarity is always a friend, and sometimes it feels like Pratt is hiding behind the haziness, such that the intricacies of these tracks aren’t speaking as they should. The songwriting and performances are there, and it would be nice to hear them really bloom under glossier production.
Just like Pratt’s 2015 record, On Your Own Love Again, Quiet Signs is brief and understated. For every shadowy quality, though, there’s enough musical and lyrical intrigue to warrant dozens of listens. Sometimes simplicity truly is the best route to take, and the uncomplicated nature of Pratt’s music affirms that she shines in this arena. This release is just shy of being a career-defining work, and hopefully Pratt’s next—whenever that might be—reaches that status.