On her fifth solo album, Pint of Blood (released 6/28 on Anti Records), Jolie Holland offers ten songs that run the gamut subject-wise, between love found and discarded, relationships forged and dissolved, desperation hanging on and the poetry that infuses our lives with rich and vibrant meaning. Since her solo debut in 2003, she’s crafted music that isn’t afraid of embracing one emotion to intently; rather, balancing judiciously between an upbeat line and a melancholic lyric, Holland has always struck a fine balance between the literal and figurative. Her last record, The Living and the Dead was an excellent example of songwriting that can be both catchy and intellectual, drawing in the listener with compelling arrangements, well-worded lyrics and that trademark Jolie Holland voice that is utterly entrancing. It was the album she’d been building up to over the course of her career, and for a listener it’s never more exciting than to see (and hear) an artist grow and evolve ever forward, refining the missteps of the past and elaborating on the strengths.
Frustrating, then, is Holland’s newest work, Pint of Blood. So much of the raw building blocks are present for this to be a superb record. Holland’s voice is in fine form, gliding between thoughts and words, melisma intact, bending and caressing notes to forge them into wholly new beings and shapes. And the musicianship is certainly strong, employing Grey Gersten and Mark Ribot on guitar and impressive multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily to bolster the record with muscle, depth and at times the appropriate restraint and finesse. But these songs feel emptier and more hollow than Holland’s previous work. Lead single “Gold and Yellow” is a rollicking, unbridled affair, with electric guitar surging forth and crashing down, while Holland rises above the rhythmic maelstrom with her gorgeous, shimmering vocal. In fact, her singing evokes the sea imagery explicated in the song’s lyrics, adding a depth of understanding and a synthesis of word and sound that should invigorate the listener. But, it just doesn’t catch on. It’s a fun listen, but it doesn’t dig in like Holland’s work so often does.
Also, at points on Pint of Blood, the songs come across as somewhat unoriginal. “The Devil’s Sake” is a prime example of this, where the lyrics employ cliché without being recovered by a witty turn of phrase or weighty introspection. She sings, “Can you tell me if you’re the devil or the one I should love?” It’s trite without the necessary backup– as if we’re supposed to accept the minor chords and alt-country slide guitar drawl as legitimizing the supposed darkness of the song. Unfortunately, it appears Holland rests too heavily on the listener to fill in the details that are missing, which leaves much of Blood sounding somewhat insincere.
Even so, there are still some real gems on this record. “Honey Girls” is a beautiful shuffle that showcases some of Holland’s best lyrics. When she sings, “I think I know where the moon is gonna rise / We can walk around the hill and take it by surprise,” there’s a lovely mischievousness that carries no malice, just sheer excitement in reveling at our place within the greater web of the world. “Honey Girls” and the ensuing Townes van Zandt cover “Rex’s Blues” are the perfect couplet for the album, and indicate that Holland still very much has her spark, even if it’s muted during the middle part of the album. “June” does a fantastic job of holding Holland’s voice from traveling too much between pitches, keeping her focused and forward, which for most of her songs wouldn’t work, but for “June” it’s an instance where control can produce magnificent and humbled elegance.
Pint of Blood may be a bit of a misstep, but Holland’s career is so illustrious and her acclaim so well-deserved that it’s particularly frustrating to see her err. But, the moments where she gets it right remind us that she’s truly a light among her contemporaries.