Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Mike Gentry
The drowsy is here, not in the hereafter. It is a sweet here though, a sweet here that feels, nay, smells like the fermentation of corn mash, of whatever kind of mash is going to produce a brew that will put the maximum amount of hair on your chest or make you so falling down drunk that it features a skull and crossbones on the label. It sounds like that fermentation, the breaking down of solid particles and reducing them to shaking, quivering runts hoping someone might come by with a feathered jacket or a sweatshirt.
Jesse Sykes and her Sweet Hereafter group of players are able to get very blunt in a sleepy, folksy kind of way that takes us into the territory of spooks and bumps in the night that can't be figments of the imagination, but completely real and goose pimple-raising. Sykes is almost a rustic-y vixen-like Vincent Price, at least the way that Bill Hader plays him on Saturday Night Live, drawn to the macabre or the potentially macabre elements of love and the outdoors. These are gentle eyes, for love only, dulled or muted. They are spirits of care and passion turned into the empty souls left to wander the earth invisibly and lonely, set permanently into an ugly, stalking purgatory.
It's interesting how a purgatory - or Sykes' perceived purgatory - can have the same kind of warm chill as a late autumn or an early spring, take your pick. She sings about summertime here, but that's almost a ruse as she's most interested in the kinds of conditions that couldn't be tolerated with too little clothing, just enough. She's guided in her writing by a drafty sense of the crestfallen or the stale old feel of heartbreak or luckless bewilderment. It's as if all of these modestly comfortable seasons and all of these eerie misgivings are a part of some kind of conspiracy that needs to be handled with the utmost of care and even more startling cool.
She sings out through these mists and fogs and it gives off a hazy undercurrent of alcoholic substance. It's as if we've sunk, or been anchored, to the basement of a thick-bottomed tumbler of bourbon or whiskey, splashing around in the stagnant drink. We're in the midst of the heavy amber color and looking to the outside of the glass, it feels like a constant twilight hour, getting us sleepy and woozy. Sykes finds herself reaching out to touch the darknesses that always seem as if they should be left alone or approached cautiously. There's no sense in waking the angry beasts if they can be left pacified and none the wiser for our presence. She messes with the demons and gets up close enough to take in the scents of their resting breaths. She lets them dry out her eyes and her hair, lets them cool off her mugs of teas - these exhalations of the beasts, of the distressed loves. They are culpable for all the things they've put her through, for all of the raw emotions they pluck from her head and eyes, for all of the red tension and apprehension that they bring out in her. It's all a part of the law of the land though. It's never changed and it likely never will change and that's what she finds most spooking and chilling about any of it.
*Essay originally published January, 2009
Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter Official Site