Music|Jesca Hoop Gazes Gently Into Darkness on ‘Stonechild’
Fable and chronicle, the cryptic and the confessional, spiritual longings and earthly concerns, folky delicacy and rock impact, motion and meditation all have a place in Jesca Hoop’s songs. “Stonechild” is Hoop’s fifth solo studio album; she has also released live acoustic remakes of two albums and shared a duet album in 2016, “Love Letter for Fire,” with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine, another slinger of finely turned enigmas.
With “Stonechild,” Hoop has made her quietest, most contemplative studio album. The songs all begin with gentle picking, acoustic or electric, before heading in diverse, unpredictable directions. It marks a change in locale for her recordings. Although Hoop moved from California to England in 2008, she continued to record her albums in Los Angeles with American, mostly West Coast musicians who could build rambunctious arrangements when Hoop chose to rock.
But Hoop made “Stonechild” in England with the producer John Parish, who has worked with PJ Harvey and Aldous Harding and is known for a starkly stripped-down approach. Working in England brings Hoop geographically closer to one of her main sources — British and Celtic traditions, with their modal melodies and cleareyed stoicism — and on this album, she has traded California looseness for an element of measured formality, though strange things still happen. The music’s seeming transparency only spotlights the changeability of Hoop’s voice, from cozy intimacy to conversational familiarity to steely resolve to banshee proclamation.
The album juxtaposes some of Hoop’s most direct songs and some of her most mysterious ones. It begins with “Free of Feeling,” with picking that hints at Appalachia and a skewed skiffle beat; the lyrics glance at the limits of institutionalized religion and of language itself. The female vocal duo Lucius wafts in with a dissonant countermelody and eventually joins Hoop as she sings an inscrutable refrain: “We go look for dark/to get free of the feeling.”
On “Stonechild,” quiet doesn’t necessarily mean soothing. In “Shoulder Charge,” she gradually moves from solitude and defensiveness — “There was no one I could trust to understand” — to welcome the comforts of empathy. But “Red White and Black” contemplates human sacrifice in a subdued but inexorable march, ominously concluding, “The river is thirsty.” The most conventionally folky-sounding song, “Outside of Eden,” is still futuristic; its cheerfully strummed guitars support Hoop and duet partners, Kate Stables and Justis, singing about an app for the “girlfriend experience/enter the code and I’ll taste real.”
Hoop explores a woman’s perspective in all its strength and vulnerability. In “Old Fear of Father,” Hoop offers coldblooded advice to her daughter, with a melody that takes one startling leap soon after it begins. She warns of the ways women are pitted against one another in a man’s world and of impending mother-daughter rivalries: “Don’t look to me for sweetness,” she sings.
Not that she finds sweetness herself. “Footfall to the Path” is a bitter acceptance that love fades. “Why love if loving never lasts?” she sings, moving eventually to a melody that suggests a raga. “Nothing/Grasp nothing,” she decides. Hoop is surrounded in a drone that evanesces with the nuances of her mood: fingerpicking, hammered dulcimer, woodwinds, electronic blips, her own vocal harmonies, brusque bowed basses, backup vocals repeating “light and shadow.”
It happens throughout the album: calm guitars support Hoop’s voice, often multiplied, yet she contemplates catastrophe. “Death Row,” with electronics burbling behind its guitar picking, often sounds like a lullaby, but its lyrics free-associate thoughts of transformation and annihilation. “You’ll learn to laugh once you’ve finished crying,” she assures, and her vocals group themselves in bright harmonies. “May you have a good death, a very good death.”
Jon Pareles has been The Times’s chief pop music critic since 1988. A musician, he has played in rock bands, jazz groups and classical ensembles. He majored in music at Yale University. @JonPareles