Hi/Lo: A Road Trip with Cassandra Jenkins

Photo by Stas Knop from Pexels.

Welcome to Hi/Lo, a dilettante’s column about music and its wider cultural influences—some highbrow, some lowbrow, but all presented with enthusiasm and without any particular authority.

When Cassandra Jenkins released her single “Hard Drive” at the end of January, the critics were unanimous and lavish in their praise. Pitchfork awarded it their Best New Music tag, calling the track “elegant and kaleidoscopic.” NPR veteran and creator of All Songs Considered Bob Boilen selected it as his song of the month.

I was one such admirer. Minutes after hearing it, I sent it to my best friends. I know it’s January, I said, but you can stop searching: this is the song of the year. Jenkins describes “Hard Drive” as “part travel diary and part spiritual character study.” A musical mosaic culled from fragments of conversations she had on the road between tours, “Hard Drive” coruscates with an intimate, subtle brilliance. But such charms are easily degraded by overuse, and I looped it so many times, it lost its thrall as its sum devolved into its parts. Here, I lay those parts on the table like so many receipts and ticket stubs and postcards, and we take a look at the tableau presented by Jenkins’ auditory scrapbook.

“Hard Drive” is a song that aspires to art in the most American sense. Its most obvious thematic forebears would have to be the Beats, its periodic stops across America relayed through cool jazz and spoken-word, its glimmers of spirituality dotting the road ahead like lights on the highway. But its concision and detachment reminded me of Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, where each chapter presents the narrator, Faye, in conversation with someone new: a colleague at a conference, a stranger on a plane, a hairstylist. But “conversation” is too reciprocal a term: critic Katy Waldman described the dynamics of Faye’s encounters as one where strangers “helplessly begin to talk at her.” Faye remains mostly silent throughout the books, documenting the pain, frustrations, tenderness, and quiet wisdom plumbed from these quotidian encounters, showing her had only insofar as she shares what she wants us to see.

But where the encounters in Cusk’s novels present insights into the speaker’s views on the world, the multifarious urban characters collected in Jenkins’ wunderkammer seem drawn together by their desire to ask her one thing: Girl, are you all right? There is the security guard at the museum who wants to talk about how men have lost touch with the feminine. There is the bookkeeper in Southern California who tells her about chakras. There is Darryl, her New York driving instructor, who asks if she’s seen her therapist lately, and a psychic at a party who promises to help put her heart back together. Unlike in Cusk’s work, the narrator here seems to be in some state—so much so, that everyone she encounters is keen on helping her out.

Denuded of its delicate aural filigree by too many listens, “Hard Drive,” I found, lacked a hook. As much as I appreciate indie music, I’m a pop fan first, and as much as I didn’t want it to, my subconscious started to put a pop hook in the empty spaces. I started filling the sparse chorus with the decidedly less-cool specter of a similar spoken-word song—one that absolutely does not aspire to art, but one that feels in thematic conversation with “Hard Drive.”

As a teen, I loathed Shawn Mullins’ 1998 superhit “Lullaby,” but like Carson Daly, raver pants, and electric blue fruit snacks, an American adolescent in the late ’90s could not avoid it. Jenkins seems to be around my age, so I would imagine this song has infiltrated her formative subconscious too, whether she likes it or not (and she probably does not). “Lullaby” (which, really, should be called “Rockabye,” but that is the least of its issues) starts with a Butthole Surfers-style keyboard riff, which is the most interesting part of the song because it feels like a Butthole Surfers song, before banishing that riff to the backbeat and segueing into Mullins’ acoustic guitar.

Mullins tells a story about a poor little rich girl who, wait for it, doesn’t realize how beautiful she is. In my personal mental mashup of these two songs, Mullins has become one of the characters Jenkins encountered on her road trip, one who has also expressed his concern for her, but she has omitted him from her retelling because he’s pretty cringe: he says things like, “She’d be a whole lot prettier if she smiled once in a while” and describes LA as “Nashville with a tan.” Again, excellent curation on Jenkins’ part. But as exhilarating as I found the ride for the first few weeks, I can’t shake this niggling feeling that this road has come to an end. By a cruel trick of circumstance and time, as taken as I was with “Hard Drive,” I will be hard-pressed to remember anything about it in 20-odd years, while my 30-odd-old self still struggles to extricate Mullins’ earworm from her skull.

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