Jessica Lea Mayfield, of Kent, Ohio, released her first album With Blasphemy so Heartfelt (produced by Dan Auerbach, fellow Ohioan) at the tender age of nineteen. I missed it. I probably shouldn’t have.
Her second Auerbach (Black Keys) produced record Tell Me arrived in 2011 when she was 22, 23 maybe. I listened to it. I heard talent. But somehow the combination of songs, performance and production didn’t really hook me.
Never bothered with her alleged grunge-rock record, the two previous had been loosely in the roots-rock/Americana idiom, called Make My Head Sing. No Dan Auerbach. I don’t know who produced it, but Mayfield described it loosely as dedicated to one of her favorite artists, Dave Grohl. Not being a huge fan of the Zelig of contemporary rock, that dedication probably soured me on the project. Sorry.
For me and Jessica it was a matter of timing. The time is now. And the record is Sorry is Gone. Which is pretty great.
Mayfield and producer John Agnello seamlessly blend everything from grunge to country, from shoegaze to folk-rock. Sorry is Gone is a song cycle, unified by Mayfield’s struggles with identity and confidence, emerging from the ashes of an abusive marriage. It would have been easy to take these volatile emotions over the top. Instead, Mayfield gives them precise emotional measure, placing distance between herself and her lyrics when necessary, investing directly when required. She sings elongated phrases, pauses in unexpected places, and falls just behind the beat, but it all works.
Her raw state is expressed succinctly in the opener, “Wish You Could See Me.” The title sounds triumphant, but it’s followed by “but no one can see me.” She sings in a tired, languid voice, somewhere between Kurt Vile and Hope Sandoval. Completely in control, and still devastated. This make the second, title cut all the more victorious sounding. Sweet country harmonies are accompanied by a band that sounds more like the Cure or the Banshees. Mayfield’s wry, caustic way with words is in evidence - men are nice for “lifting heavy things” and “opening jars,” but Mayfield asks, “But should we let them in our beds?’ Leaving a bummer behind, Mayfield sings quite literally “Sorry is Gone;” she’s not a woman in love anymore - she’s a woman fresh out of apologies.
Sorry is Gone’s supporting cast includes the unlikely pairing of Seth Avett from the Avett Brothers (with whom Mayfield cut a limited release set of Elliott Smith songs) on keyboards, and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums. A number of guitarists, including the artist, contribute ringing, overdriven guitars, a sound all of a piece but subtly varied to the needs of each tune, from grungy on the Nirvana (“Sliver”) informed “Bum Me Out” to the Byrds chime of “Offa My Hands.”
There’s a shoegaze meets metal quality to “Soaked Through,” ponderous but affecting; Mayfield’s feelings of entrapment palpable - “I tried to leave, he wouldn’t let me up, so I stayed a little longer.” The song’s musicality in harmony with the awful “me too” quality of the lyric. Emerging from emotional numbness, Mayfield asks “any tips on how to feel more human (asking for a friend)?” on “Safe 2 Connect 2,” a plaintive, acoustic statement of caution and longing. She has a beautifully unsettling way of couching the most desperate emotions in gorgeous shimmer, as in the concluding track “Too Much Terrible.” Mayfield sings “I’d cut off my hand before I cut off the rope” with a flat, but determined affect that lets you know she’s been through hell, kept going, and she ain’t goin’ back.
Sorry is Gone is a tough listen in places, but it’s a clear-eyed statement, both direct and poetic, with music to match. A set of discrete songs around a central theme, performed with passion and empathy, produced to match. It’s a record of pained, transcendent beauty that will wear well, methinks. Not unlike collections such as Tonight’s the Night, Astral Weeks or Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, a mature work from an artist who will continue to matter.