REVIEW: Risa Rubin - Jewish Unicorn

Laura Kerry

The second video in Risa Rubin’s new video album, Jewish Unicorn, is about balloons. The song opens on old, grainy footage of hot air balloons glowing at night, and returns throughout to other balloons—in snippets of twirling cake, children’s birthday parties, and a Betty Boop cartoon. Intercut with all of the found footage of celebrations and birthdays is a scene of the artist exasperatedly trying to gather up a pile of balloons, bringing them close to her underwear and striped shirt–clad body before they come loose and she must begin again. The song is called “Cry Longer,” and though it contains a glimmer of hope (“one day,” it repeats many times at the end), it is not a song about balloons, nor is it particularly celebratory.

Many of the videos stand at odd angles to the songs they illustrate—or are just odd. Rubin stars in all of them, filling the lo-fi frame with shots of her body and face filmed by a shaky hand, by a computer camera, or with the camera resting on her bed. The DIY style often resembles the found footage that she uses, which seems to mostly comprise YouTube home videos. The overall effect is one of uncomfortable titillation, like reading a stranger’s diary that you found on the street.

Up close, we see Rubin tenderly rub the protrusion of her fake pregnant stomach (“Motherhood”), stare directly into the camera as she dances awkwardly with her hands (“I Would Like to Talk With You Again”), and caress and whisper to her cat (“Until Love’s a Void”)—and watching it all would feel voyeuristic, but her songs reminds you who’s in control. Armed with software, a piano, and a harp and voice that owe a lot to Joanna Newsom, Rubin blends this vulnerability with bold confidence and the weirdness with beauty, gracefully spinning old-fashioned folk with a contemporary dose of freak.

The final song, “Autobiography,” typifies the mixture both visually—with clips and outtakes from the previous videos—and lyrically. “I had my first kiss at nineteen / And I'm waiting for the Guinness book to call me,” she begins the second verse with humorous and brazen self-deprecation. But that strain of cheeky self-effacement (“big ego, low self esteem” she says in the same song) fades delicately and prettily in the refrain, “If I were to live the life I've always wanted / I'd relieve myself of body and mind / I know the point is to be kind.”

Despite the off-kilter self-exposure in the videos and the unconventionality of her half-jazz, half-child vocals, the gentle sentiment in “Autobiography” is what comes through most in Rubin’s music. She has a knack for elevating simple rhymes and repetitions, making rich poetry of would-be nursery rhymes; “There's the somber realization that with you I'm even more alone… / Now there is the understanding that I can only go home,” she sings in “I Would Like to Talk With You Again,” and in “Autobiography,” she pleads, “Can you agree that I should be freed? / Will you agree that I should be freed? / Please agree that I should be freed!” Rubin exposes herself just as much in her lyrics as she does in her videos, but the words are couched in a more muted beauty. The spaces and intersections between the visuals—sometimes pretty, sometimes raw and strange—and this beauty in the lyrics make for an intriguing and accomplished video album. Watch it all below.