Perhaps fittingly for a Californian in Manchester, the ever-unpredictable Jesca Hoop has drawn together folk influences from quiet English song to the Appalachian Mountains in an album that explores love, loss, empathy, and the light and shade of our times. Distinctly darker than its predecessor Memories are Now, STONECHILD is produced by long-term PJ Harvey collaborator John Parish, and there is more than a hint of Harvey-esque storytelling. Parish is also well-known for his work with Tracy Chapman and Eels, and the album is frequently reminiscent of Chapman’s realism (‘Shoulder Charge’) and Eels’ melancholy (particularly in ‘Footfall to the Path’ – ‘why love if loving never lasts?’).
The album begins with two collaborations with the indie band Lucius. ‘Free of the Feeling’ opens with Hoop’s rich lower range set against guitar and electronics. This at once feels traditional and man-made, while a sense of disquiet builds to stirring question-and-answer phrases between Hoop and Lucius’ Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. These three strong female voices overlap and clash beautifully, particularly in the soft, high-register coda that concludes the song. It is a captivating journey.
The other Lucius collaboration is the heartbreakingly sincere ‘Shoulder Charge’. Its comparatively simple musical content and structure means the lyrics take centre-stage. Moving from loneliness to the comforting realisation that ‘nothing one can go through has not been shared by two,’ Hoop perfectly illustrates the tedious but universal experience of putting on a brave face during hard times: ‘head out to meet a friend for coffee, armoured in mascara.’
At other points, Hoop extends her empathy of personal distress to wider issues. These, however, tend to be less successful. ‘Old Fear of Father’ is an ambitious attempt to portray the challenges placed on young women through the lens of a cold and brutally honest mother (‘at least you’re pretty, don’t look to me for sweetness’). Set in the top part of Hoop’s range with sparse accompaniment, the track is musically pretty but almost too ephemeral, easily floating away from the listener’s concentration. Similarly, ‘Red White and Black’ is a valiant endeavour to present a ‘snapshot set in post civil war USA when slavery was “abolished” and swiftly rebranded by the prison system,’ but remains too grounded in steadily plodding country themes to pack much of a punch.
The beautifully simple ‘Passage’s End’ deals with the haunting story behind the album’s title: Stonechild refers to an unborn foetus that had turned to bones after it had been carried by a woman for over 30 years. Written from the woman’s perspective, Hoop weaves a harrowing narrative of forbidden love and shame whilst reflecting on the fates of many young women throughout history. This is an album that lingers in the mind long after the closing bars. Despite a couple of less engaging tracks, at its best it utilises the enigmatic and gorgeous strangeness in Hoop’s music to stunning effect.