Katie here, and I can’t tell you how happy we are to welcome Underwater Alum Jordan Klassen back to the stage in November! His forthcoming record, Tell Me What To Do, is a stunner, and deepens the well Zoe talked about in her initial artist profile of Klassen last year— she used the phrase “grounded Sufjan Stevens,” and I’d say that still applies, but I’m also starting to see shades of Conor Oberst, Dylan LeBlanc and Gregory Alan Isakov: he’s become or is becoming the journeyman storyteller that knows how to use a folkier sound to enhance lyrics, instead of writing lyrics specifically trying to fit into genre.
For example, his latest single, “Virtuous Circle,” sounds as much like Plans-era Death Cab as anything, or maybe even like a slightly more acoustic Postal Service. There’s triumph, there are fireworks, there are crashing waves of percussion, there are so many sensory moments that when the lyrics break into the simple
Am walking to where the sun sets behind the sky
And writing the constellations with open eyes
And slip past the old devotion to wonder why
They say that it's insanity
I'm spending all my hard-earned pleas
They say that it's insanity to stay
—you’re already under his spell. Because he cleverly builds an interesting world in the first six or seven lines, with beautiful phrases that almost seem disconnected. They aren’t. He’s just sketching out the whole literal world for us, and he can only do that with clips and phrases like “History’s a blanket on my mind” and “Virtuous, the circle that you draw/ it overrides the locking of your jaw.” There are so many perfect little moments in Klassen’s music that it’s hard to isolate any one thing. What do you go for? The instrumentation, which is always enhanced by some kind of strings or keys that give the songs a mystical feel? What about the guitar? Should I focus on the way he uses levels in his voice, only switching into the highest register to plead or declare joy?
But when I’m listening to Jordan Klassen, I don’t think about any of those things. I just think about how outrageously beautiful his music is. In fact, we were all so captivated at his Garden Session at the last festival that he immediately became a permanent part of my playlist after that. For example— and it’s almost like I planned to show off his high range here— here’s Klassen in The Garden with “No Salesman.”
I’ve told you about how lush and beautiful his music is, and that’s absolutely true— but look at the alchemy at hand when all he has is a guitar. He uses those strings to build the tension and create the background of a beautiful painting, but his voice is the real stand out. Many people can play guitar, and many people can write a lovely song. But every time I hear this song, I get goosebumps. The song opens with one verse and then a chorus, which is traditional, but because he jumps a register in the chorus (told you he knows the importance of levels!), it makes the whole song seem haunted:
Hey, Theresa, neighbours still a long way from the start
Selling secrets just to pay our dues and play our parts
Cold September brings the oldest longing in my heart
Words are kicking off a dust of wind of where we are
But I love you more, I love you more
Like kick drums on your bedroom door
And I throw on some piece of mind
But you still ain't the salesman kind
These aren’t even the best lyrics in the song, but honestly? To do this song justice, all you have to do is click “play” up there— you really should allow Klassen to fill your heart and mind with all the beauty in his. But can you imagine anyone else— especially in this high range— singing, “I love you more, I love you more/ Like kick drums on your bedroom door” and having it bring people to tears? Because when we were watching him…people cried. But if I’d pulled each and every one of them aside, my guess is they couldn’t have pointed to why. “I love you more” is an evocative phrase, surely, but it’s hardly the standout here: it’s what he compares with love. A kickdrum against a door.
Klassen’s narrator is a person in desperate love, and they have to act on it: but the image is so clear and vivid without being heavy-handed. He’s a smart enough writer to hold back so we can all think of whose bedroom door we’d need a kickdrum for. Billy Joel once sang, “And in my heart there is a room/ A sanctuary safe and sound/ To heal the wounds from lovers past/ Until a new one comes along.” I only bring up The Great One because Klassen is showing us what those rooms look like, the ones that are supposed to help heal the wounds— but when I listen to him wail, “But you still ain’t the salesman kind,” I know that his heart, while a room of his own, is not a sanctuary.
Klassen is aggressively vulnerable. He is going to be truthful about his experience as a human being in ways that most artists are scared to be— he doesn’t always try to make the narrator the hero. That said, I have never heard him sing a song where he didn’t have both parties fleshed out and humanized. There are no flat characters in a Jordan Klassen song.
I’m dying for you to hear the new record, because there’s something I can’t kick: Tell Me What To Do starts almost with an intro (1:49 minutes) instead of a song, a beautiful, haunting clip called “Loss for Words.” Who starts a record with that kind of rushed anxiety instead of ending there? So after a line or two, over and over, he says, “There’s nothing more I wanted to say, there was nothing more I wanted to say,” and the folk music, the strings and the warm autumnal vocals, are up against a track. It’s truly magnificent, and it explains perhaps the best thing about Klassen’s music for me—
When he has nothing to say? It’s still better and more compelling than when most people feel like they have a lot to say. Once more, to quote Zoe: “Though [his music] deals with heavy subjects [it] is still more steeped in hope than melancholy. His protagonists frequently plead and often pauses to question, but the songs lean into—rather than acquiesce to— discomfort and press forward through uncertainty. All the while, Klassen's unique, cooing vocal style bathes his songs in wonder and blends with unconventional instrumentation choices (instruments that Klassen almost exclusively played himself).” She was talking about his previous album Big Intruder but it seems as though each record only takes him one more step into what makes him unique, what makes him less of a comparison in the scene and more of a heavy hitting artist of his own. I see a day not far in the future when we are bringing in a new musician with a lush palette, a beautiful voice, and a unique point of view, and I’ll be able to say, “This artist sounds like Jordan Klassen.”
So he’s given us a directive in his new album title, Underwater Sunshine Fam: we’re supposed to tell him what to do. But given the way the new music is layered and built, the way he sounds like the best day of fall in the middle of winter— given the way he spins ghosts of people and other lives in front of him when he plays live— I’m more likely to tell YOU what to do: come see Jordan Klassen in November! He’ll be playing gigs at Red Rocks and ACL soon and you’ll be able to say, “I saw Jordan Klassen at Rockwood Music Hall and I don’t know that anyone made it out of there without tears in their eyes.”