Following our interview with Jake Downs last November, Landon Peck reviews his debut album Fracture.
‘It’s a record about human relationships: with each other, with nature, with technology – and, perhaps most importantly, with ourselves.’ Through its seven tracks, Jake Downs’s new album Fracture charts the process of moving on from a difficult relationship. It’s a chamber pop album bathed in sentimental string arrangements, driving rhythms, and attractively sombre melodies that successfully illuminate cinematic vignettes of personal experiences. Each one of these vignettes is either prefaced or concluded with an instrumental track, which serves to transport the listener into and out of the poignant emotional spheres which the songs occupy.
The album begins with the title track ‘Fracture’, an instrumental introduction setting the mood for the rest of the album. Broken, chattering electronic voices (creating the same effect as radio interference) are surrounded by the sounds of distant sirens and wind, before being overcome by a humble string line. This juxtaposition of electronics and string instrumentation is the perfect way to start an album which explores the idea of ‘fracture’, musically internalising the concept before a word of the lyrics has been sung.
One of the biggest highlights of the album is the performance Downs gives as a vocalist. Each note is crisp and full of emotion. In the pre-chorus of ‘Chrysalis’ remarkable vocal control is needed, as this quick passage is later duplicated by the piano; the vocals are performed perfectly, drawing the listener’s attention between the two sections. With a moderate use of vibrato and not shying away from pushing his voice when needed, the approach to singing on this album reflects both the pop and classical sides of these songs whilst never feeling out of place within the instrumental arrangement.
As well executed as the vocals are, the instrumental tracks are the most interesting pieces on the album. They act as extensions for the main composition found in the vocal tracks. Without their presence the sung songs may seem rushed, not producing the emotional impact intended. ‘Port Meadow’ and ‘Afterglow’ are for me the two most effective tracks, as they allow the listener just enough time to breathe before diving back into the fray.
The second track ‘Wild’ boasts the largest instrumentation on the album, featuring an eclectic mix reflecting Downs’ wide range of music influences (including the first appearance of Downs’ vocals, piano, Moog, field recordings, electronic programming, musical saw, drums, string quartet, plus an additional solo violin). An undulating ostinato in the piano is introduced at the beginning then transformed and interchanged with the strings between choruses, taking a trick also used on the first track of Efterklang’s Magic Chairs, although in a more serious context here. Conversely, when the chorus opens up, the catchy pop sensibilities of the album are fully realised.
The other three vocal tracks have much in common in their arrangement, with single note piano ostinati maintaining a sombre and looming atmosphere. Counter-melodies and doubling lines are present in ‘Chrysalis’, and are some of the most powerful sections of the entire album due to a passionate vocal performance. Meanwhile, rhythmic string arrangements like those found in Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love (namely ‘Cloudbusting’) or Owen Pallett’s Heartland can be found at the end of ‘Cypress Tree’, lending a sense of grandeur and seriousness to the theme of loss prevalent in the lyrics.
Downs describes the title of the album thus: ‘The duality of the album plays on both meanings of the word – from the broken and disjointed evoking thoughts of pain, to something that can be healed in time.’ Fracture lives up to this description; it is a thoughtful and solemn album that succeeds in building something emotional in each of its tracks. It successfully incorporates many techniques used in orchestrating chamber pop songs and with its lyrics asks the listener to reflect on their own similar experiences. This is a debut album which marks Jake Downs as a promising talent for the future.