Something spellbinding occurs on “How Ya Lonesome,” the midway point of Sorceress – the fourth album from Texas-native, LA-based musician Jess Williamson – her already magnetic universe opens up before us in a kaleidoscope of hazy ‘70s cinema and meditative psychedelia, offering a story of love and uncertainty beside weaving pedal steel guitar, piano and synths. Sorceress sees Williamson remain true to her country roots while growing in ambition.
Williamson weaves untamed love letters to our confounding present and uncertain future – accompanied by musings on femininity (she questions what it means to be an aging woman in this society on “Ponies in Town”: “Am I aging well? Am I just an aging well?”), the pursuit of perfection; a search for meaning via Tarot, astrology apps and crystals; evocative critiques of capitalism and living online and details the lives and deaths of loved ones. Sorceress is an album about loss – lost innocence and facing mortality head-on – and self-assured insight. These reflections orbit around Williamson’s superb voice, a pure voice, a voice of might and vulnerability.
The propulsive opener, “Smoke,” depicts a co-dependent relationship. Beginning with Williamson’s vocal and an acoustic guitar, “Smoke” quickly adds drums, baritone guitar, electric guitar, bass, and pedal steel guitars. “It’s told from the perspective of the person who keeps giving and giving, and, on some level, they like it,” Williamson shares. Our narrator begs, “hit me with it easy if you’re gonna leave” after insisting that “no one’s come this close to knowing me.” As smoke fills up the house, triumph arises from the recognition of free will: for the first time in a long time, our protagonist takes control.
On the title track, a liberating ballad, she sings, “Yes, there’s a little magic in my hat/But I’m no sorceress.” However, she sure sounds like one. A crooner; an enchantress; whatever you want to call her, Williamson finds the magic in everyday life and draws you in. Woozy album standout, “Wind on Tin,” conjures a different kind of magic. She can hear spirits during a memorial service for a friend: “heard a sound so heavenly/were the angels singing just for us?” she asks, is that absurd? “Or is that what the wind out here does on tin? I heard God.” For the briefest moment, the ordinary and the supernatural worlds collide. Those of us who have also encountered the spiritual realm aren’t so crazy, after all.
Directed by a perfect chorus, the synth-led “Infinite Scroll” introduces Al Carson’s saxophone; to beautiful results. “Infinite Scroll,” like a majority of Williamson’s songwriting thus far, is multifaceted. On the one hand, she grieves for times past and nurses a broken heart (“swearing love can’t die, and I believed that”) while sharing some ingenious commentary about spending our days online (“time did unfold like an infinite scroll”). If only life possessed Instagram’s endless scroll.
While “Rosaries at the Border” and “Ponies in Town” scrape the surface of Sorceress as Williamson’s “mother album” – “Rosaries at the Border” illustrates bringing a child into a God-fearing country, while “Ponies in Town” explores the connection between fertility and the moon; with a question or two on womanhood, motherhood and mortality – Williamson looks deeper on “Gulf of Mexico” and solidifies her big-screen vision.
On “Gulf of Mexico,” there is a woman who would rather ditch the drunken debauchery around her – fully aware that if you want another lover, “you could find her on your phone” – for a comfy night at home. We see a woman who’s wary of the lines on her face; a woman frightened at the thought of being too old to bear children; a woman in need of holy strength, wherever that may appear from. Late on “Gulf of Mexico,” Williamson harmonizes with a choir of her voice as she sings: “A woman goes through phases, and a woman goes alone/I can’t quite explain it, because I don’t always know.” Through eleven ragged country stories, Jess Williamson summons women’s repressed worries outward; without shame, without a man’s lingering gaze, and with a deft sense of humor.
If I’m completely frank, Sorceress is the album that’s kept me going as we continue on during a global pandemic. The gorgeous, low key melodies are slowly revealed like petals falling from a rose. Williamson’s voice – at once recalling the yearning of Angel Olsen and a Dolly Parton whisper – envelopes me like my childhood duvet. She confronts my own decisions as a woman, and the insecurities surrounding them. What does life hold for me, as a woman intending to live a childless existence? Can I still love unconditionally if I don’t have a child? Am I allowing my body to waste away? These are questions that have encircled my life for years and will become more tiresome when I reach my thirties. Hopefully, I can be like Jess Williamson: triumphant, free and continuously moving towards something.