Listening to Tell Me, it’s hard to believe that Jessica Lea Mayfield is still only 21 years old. She sings with a world-weary, deadpan drawl and speaks of heartache with the conviction of an old widow who has lost her husband out at sea. Certainly not keen to view the world she dwells in through rose-tinted lenses, Mayfield is eager to highlight the unfairness and sorrow of shattered relationships.
Her songs usually cast herself in the role of the tormented. On Tell Me, however, it is she who is devious of spirit: “It used to be me getting my heart broken; now it’s about me breaking other people’s hearts.” It is for those reasons that she has found comparisons with Laura Marling here in the UK; the mind of an old woman inhabiting a young girl’s body. A fair comparison, but don’t listen to this album expecting charming British nu-folk revivalism. Musically, Jessica Lea Mayfield has more in common with Neil Young.
Tell Me is a deliciously dark album. The mood of each song is overcast with emotional yearning and melancholy. The gloomy reverb and tremolo guitar on opener I’ll Be The One That You Want Someday mirrors the sombreness of Nancy Sinatra’s Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down). But, keen not to wallow in sadness, the raw guitar solo gives the song a boldness and defiance against the weakness of human emotion. This album is very much the story of a young woman in control of her emotional life; Our Hearts Are Wrong describes the realisation and understanding that love is a defect. It’s a belief which has the power to either inspire or dishearten; but Mayfield has found solace in her conviction.
Just as James Mercer of The Shins marries glorious indie pop with seriously dark imagery, Mayfield obviously takes great delight in combining the sweetest of melodies with terribly sinister lyrics; Grown Man being a perfect example of such mischievous wit. Retro Casio keyboard chords and chirpy reggae guitar stabs provide the backing for a story in which Jessica entices an older gentleman: “Could you be thinking of a possible impending love? Are you wondering if I’m really old enough?” With a chorus which sings: “Give me your hand grown man, I’ll breathe some life into you. There isn’t much I wouldn’t let you whisper in my ear.” How wonderful that the album’s catchiest track and potential ‘big hit’ should be littered with such suggestive filth.
This album isn’t all bittersweet. On the contrary, some songs wallow in pure morbidity, such as Somewhere In Your Heart which, after another Neil Young-esque guitar solo, has the line: “I’d rather die young and be forgotten than live to grow old love in me.” And then there are moments of positivity and cheerfulness such as Blue Skies Again, a song which bears resemblance to the oddball optimism of The Flaming Lips‘ Bad Days. Tell Me also owes a lot to the exquisite production courtesy of The Black Keys‘ singer and guitarist Dan Auerbach. Every track on this album is elevated beyond simple country-pop singer-songwriter territory either through clever instrumentation, such as the glorious pedal steel on Sometimes At Night, or ambitious compositions, such as that of the title track, which combines drum-machine loops, human voice samples and affected vocals.
Much of the spiel which will accompany this albums release will be about the “potential” of this fine artist. Ignore the prospective career of this exceptional singer-songwriter and allow yourself to simply admire the package currently on offer. This album will prove to be as addictive listening come the end of the year as it is right now.