Best known for her work with Swans from 1985 to 1997, Jarboe La Salle Devereaux has continued to be a constant presence in the avant-garde music and art world since the initial demise of the band. Persistently experimenting with song and sound, Jarboe has collaborated with a number of notable artists and bands, as well as releasing 32 solo albums. She’s made albums with Neurosis (2003’s Neurosis & Jarboe), Justin Broadrick of Godflesh (2008’s J²), and most recently, Chicago cellist and composer Helen Money (2015’s Jarboe & Helen Money). But, it’s her prolific solo output that keeps listeners devoted and often astonished. Sometimes challenging, sometimes beautiful, often so outside the mainstream it goes critically and commercially unnoticed, her music maintains a quality that listeners frequently connect with on a visceral level while her critics tend to struggle intellectually.
Illusory, her 33rd solo offering (that’s just crazy!), is a relatively straightforward listening experience. With minimal instrumentation, ambient soundscapes, and Jarboe’s voice (often in multi-track layers), it has a calming, if not sometimes eerie, quality. The title track kicks off the album, one of two tracks with lyrics. It’s a delicate song enhanced by Jarboe’s voice and words. Sparse and somewhat bleak, it’s a song that shows her lyrics can be as confounding as the music. She sings, “can time heal? But, is time real?” Fitting for the song and album title.
“Arrival” is one of a few instrumental tracks in the sense that there’s no lyrics, but there are vocals. Jarboe uses her voice not to necessarily tell a story, but to narrate a journey. More simply, her voice is an instrument alongside the delicate instrumentation that forms the songs rhythm. Some light percussion slowly builds into a more driving beat as warped organ lines push against incongruously. “Cathedral” follows in this vein with an ambient and meditative structure, Jarboe’s vocalization providing sacred sound that is both foreboding and comforting.
“Flight” touches more of the experimental side with her effects laden, multi-tracked vocals providing the basis of the song. Almost completely acapella, it’s a strange, but beautiful song. “Into the Arms of Sleep” picks up where “Flight” leaves off. While lyrics are provided for the other songs (when applicable), none were given for this track, though it most certainly sounds like she’s singing words. And I think that’s what she’s going for by allowing the listener to find their own meaning based on what the individual ear picks up. Following another near acapella introduction, the song progresses with an organ and Jarboe’s siren like vocals filling the air.
“Nourish” is a highlight of the collection. What sounds like an acoustic guitar picking a brooding melody with some atypical percussion behind it, the track gradually layers in other instruments to provide a somewhat spooky atmosphere. This is also the only song that doesn’t feature Jarboe’s voice in one form or another. “Man of Hate” reinterprets the track from her 1991 album, Thirteen Masks and closes out Illusory. This is the other track that has lyrics, if you’re unfamiliar with the two versions of the song that appeared on the aforementioned release. Jarboe’s spoken lyrics with threatening strikes of a piano chord creates an opening that forces your attention. Slowly, an acoustic guitar comes into play alongside other layered vocals as Jarboe chants, “but humankind/so frail is blind/our failings do fall as the ax does swing.“
You don’t have to be entrenched in Jarboe’s dense and complicated discography to appreciate Illusory. While this is more of an album to take in as a single musical piece, rather than song-by-song, it’s an immersive experience if you let it take over and not relegate it to background music.
– J. Kevin Lynch