There’s a set of lyrics on the new Sarah Jaffe record, out with much anticipation next month, that sums up the whole over-produced and uneven affair.
“Most people tell you they’re different / Most people tell you they’re onto something new,” she coos on the third song, “Some People Will Tell You.” “I do what most people do.”
Sad. And too true. Jaffe no longer seems interested in art and heartache or, for that matter, the art of heartache; she now belongs to the rubber-stamped and homogenized masses.
Jaffe’s self-released debut EP and the follow-up, 2010’s Suburban Nature, were understated, passionate and almost majestic glimpses of a singer-songwriter cutting her milk-teeth. Her modus operandi then largely impregnated most songs with acoustic guitar and a quivering lead vocal that accentuated the emotive punch of her lyrics. It truly was riveting, headline-churning stuff. 2012’s The Body Wins was a departure, one that in some ways felt logical given her pop-leaning career trajectory, and found Jaffe exploring more atmospheric and electronic terrain. It was a hit-and-miss affair. In the years since, the native Texan has poured time and resource into The Dividends, another departure: a hip-hop producing collective that’s drawn work from and alongside the likes of Eminem and Raekwon.
And now we get Don’t Disconnect, her first full-length proper since The Body Wins and, to be blunt, a train wreck, a once-promising talent in free-fall not knowing what makes her great in the first place. I’m sad to report that Jaffe, the singer-songwriter, simply has gone missing.
Now, I’m sure I’ll get e-mails from loads of people claiming Jaffe is merely carrying the mantle of Debbie Harry or Annie Lennox, or that Don’t Disconnect is some paean to 80s mythos and ambience, an electro-pop wet dream or sorts. No, I don’t buy it. Sure, sure, the thing is produced to within an inch of its god-damned life – hat tip to Midlake’s McKenzie Smith, who helmed the thing – but it lacks heart or even blood-flow, plain and simple. On Suburban Nature, you could have drawn a line directly from Sam Phillips or Krauss or Frost to Jaffe and she had that same haunting, other-worldly quality. Jon Brion didn’t enlist her voice to score the Disney/Pixar short The Blue Umbrella out of courtesy. But, that’s all gone now. Jaffe’s living the Hannah Montana dream and wants to be a pop chanteuse.
So be it. What to make of the effort then?
Songs like album-opener “Ride It Out” are all anthem with no message, all chorus without verse. It’s shrink-wrapped for corporate radio and Starbucks fast-food consumption. Texturally, a song like “Either Way,” with its invocation of red- and blue-state world-views, is enticing but goes nowhere. “Lover Girl,” which has been generating some buzz, goes down like flat soda: too saccharine-sweet and past its prime. “Satire” is okay but “Your Return” is awkward; “Leaving The Planet,” the album-closer, resorts to production tricks and vaguely hip-hop beats to get you dancing, all too late. Even the title track, the biggest Jaffe throwback and the closest the disc gets to engaging, seems ill-placed, ill-timed and ill-executed. It fades, appropriately and arbitrarily, before the boil.
Now, let it be clear: I like Jaffe. I really do. And I want to like this record after the transgressions of The Body Wins, which I met with lukewarm response. But Don’t Disconnect doesn’t further the arguments of her budding career, doesn’t highlight her songwriting or vocal talents, and just plain doesn’t make sense. NPR is wrong. This doesn’t deserve attention. On the road of music criticism, it’s called an unfortunate accident, and to linger or to loiter is only to rubber-neck. The verdict: disconnect.