REVIEW: Jess Williamson - Heart Song

Kelly Kirwan

Jess Williamson has the twang and hardened resolve of Southern-bred heartbreak. There’s a forlorn ache that swarms her ballads like sand swept up in the wind, and while the dust does settle, it still coats her world in a thin layer of grit. So even in those moments when her voice contorts with a palpable yearning, there’s a certain toughness to her we’d find among the canon of country greats—and her vulnerability never comes across as weakness. No, the wounds have healed, even if their scars will never fade entirely.

With roots in Austin, Texas (a haven for live music in it’s own right), Williamson has followed 2014's Native State with a seven-track LP called Heart Song. It’s a brooding, richly rustic album into which Williamson clearly seems to have poured herself, body and soul. This is a compilation that feels as if it demanded calloused fingers and weary nights, giving rise to a beautiful, emotionally-dense mosaic. Williamson is a mesmerizing storyteller, and her narratives dredge up relatable moments of your past you thought were long buried.

Her idiosyncratic vocals bloom and bend in surprising ways, and she’s honed in on the Western croon that rolls across wide expanses with a lonely reverberation. Her voice will stretch slightly off-key, reaching a piquant pitch that's simultaneously surprising and recognizable, like a birth mark over which we’ve traced our fingers for years—a spot of welcome inconsistency and familiarity.

On the album’s longest track, "Last Word," Williamson’s voice wanders between a whispering fragility and throaty, surefire sentiments. It’s a somewhat stripped-down instrumental number, with airy guitar and slow, drawn-out percussion that’s meant to emphasize the lyrics. “Well this image of you here at my door / Is something I have pictured / Many times before,” Williamson muses, following with, “Well I shouldn’t have to run to touch you / But I do.” It’s a slow-burning rumination paired with languid chords, finishing as we might expect—with Williamson asserting in a breathy murmur, “I will have the last word.”

Then there’s "Devil’s Girl," a relatively bare track that puts the negative space between notes and Williamson’s a cappella to good use. Her voice is slightly (and probably intentionally) shaky as the track presses onward, “The best men I know are in and out of hospitals / Fighting some devils … Maybe I am just the devil’s girl.” That last line is delivered in a low growl, a dangerous thought she tosses unapologetically into the ether. There’s something captivatingly sinister in this song, with Williamson facing the darker parts of her personality and world—and she does so fearlessly. She’s folksy and raw, and Heart Song is a refreshing mix of fresh and rough for us to revel in.