in Compare/Contrast

Jazmine Sullivan – Heaux Tales / The Weather Station – Ignorance

It’s hard to say what new music will look like in 2021. You would think that there may be a dearth of album releases due to the pandemic making it harder for musicians to collaborate in the studio over the past year. Though unlike film and TV, music doesn’t rely as much on large groups of people for creative fulfillment, and as we even saw in 2020, some artists are perfectly capable of writing and recording worthwhile material while in isolation. So for that reason, I think 2021 won’t be the greatest year for music or anything, but I don’t think it’ll be a complete wasteland the way movies were in 2020 and TV will almost surely be this year.

I can’t verify whether both Jazmine Sullivan’s and The Weather Station’s new albums were recorded during lockdown (though I know Heaux Tales was), but their introspective nature certainly checks off what we want out of music these days. They’re two albums that are among the most critically lauded albums of the year so far (though I suppose Heaux Tales is technically an EP), while also being probably my two favorite albums of the still-young year. They’re not that similar of sounding albums, as they’re coming from two artists that inhabit two very different spaces of the music world (Sullivan coming from the mainstream R&B world, while The Weather Station comes from the artier side of indie-pop). However, they feel worth comparing to me because they both see two artists in similar stages of their careers finding their sounds in truly revelatory ways.

Just speaking on a personal level, these are both artists that I wasn’t really familiar with until a few months ago, though they’ve both been around for a while. It’s a little more strange that I hadn’t heard of Jazmine Sullivan, considering she’d had quite a bit of success with two Grammy-nominated albums in 2008 and 2010. In fact, she’s so famous she even sang at the Super Bowl the other week, but I guess it took an album with some indie cred like Heaux Tales to land her on my radar. Also, Sullivan may have just been a little harder to become aware of recently since Heaux Tales is one of only two releases she’s put out in the last 10 years.

The Weather Station, the project of Canadian singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman has been a little more consistent, putting out five albums since their debut in 2009. It doesn’t seem that any of these albums made a huge splash (at least in the States), though I do remember seeing the striking album cover for 2017’s self-titled album when it came out, though I only caught up with it recently. From listening to a bit of her earlier albums, Ignorance feels like another leap forward from the melancholy folk that is the bedrock of Lindeman’s songwriting. Here we have something similar to the more rock-driven sound of her last album, but also with a jazzy airiness that makes the songs waft over you with a kind of cool grace that’s instantly refreshing.

While Ignorance sees Tamara Lindeman reaching new highs by expanding on her sonic palette and reaching for something a little more ambitious, Heaux Tales sees Jazmine Sullivan stripping and breaking things down. The glossy production of her earlier work is pared down considerably, which may be a reaction to the more in-vogue sounds of R&B minimalists like Frank Ocean or SZA. Though even if it’s a case of an established artist recalibrating toward fresher sensibilities, this half-hour EP never feels anything less than sincere. This is due to the fact that the lyrics take on the frustration of modern dating in a way that always feels utterly authentic (which is bolstered by its spoken-word interludes or “tales”) and peaks with the wrenching “Lost One”.

Lyrically, The Weather Station’s Ignorance is considerably less personal, as Lindeman has talked about how climate change has influenced her writing a ton, though that wouldn’t necessarily be your first conclusion after listening to this album. It’s by no means a protest album or a message album, but instead seems to be more focused on the way we internalize the existential dread that’s all around us. This makes it sound like this music might be a little too dour to be approachable, but these might actually be the most accessible songs of The Weather Station’s career. Which is indebted to a subtle dance-able backbone to these songs that reminds me somewhat of fellow Toronto-based artist U.S. Girls, but also you’ve got some sneakily catchy songs here that owe something to ’80s soft-rock, with “Tried To Tell You” being perhaps the best example.

I feel like I should also mention that Tamara Lindeman was a child actor for a few years before turning to music full time, which gives her another shade of slight similarities with Jazmine Sullivan. It seems that these are both performers who found some success at an early age, but spent a decent chunk of their 20s finding themselves (both personally and musically) and have come out the other side in their 30s somewhat self-actualized. Granted, there’s still plenty of anxiety on both these albums, but you still get the feeling that the shit they’ve gone through has made them and their music even stronger.