As a citizen of the nightlife, I’ve grown grudgingly accustomed to bigmouths talking over delicate musical performances — but it wasn’t until I heard Jessica Pratt’s new album that I fully understood why the idiotic blah-blah that frequently pollutes her concerts feels so flagrant. At first, I thought that Pratt’s quiet music made the chatter feel loud. Now, I think it’s the smallness of her music that makes the talk feel big.
The record is titled “Quiet Signs,” it’s Pratt’s third, and if you define a folk singer as someone who vocalizes just above a whisper while plucking an acoustic guitar as if they’re handling a fragile family heirloom, then Pratt is exactly that. But her voice is like nothing else around: a hallucinogenic lullaby-tone that feels both pinched and plush, tiny and deep, like an aphid singing Nina Simone at bedtime.
So yeah, Pratt’s new songs feel quiet, but they ultimately feel mini, which means their extraordinary intimacy won’t make you think about closeness so much as scale. Give her ballads your full attention and they’ll shrink you down like science fiction — not in a way that chastens your ego or reminds you of your cosmic insignificance, but with an almost psychedelic affection, as if Pratt were trying to sing you asleep on the face of a penny.
With a voice that mesmerizing, her music barely needs anything else: six guitar strings, a few tiptoed piano lines, fleeting woodwinds and a tambourine that rustles with hesitation in the album’s final minutes. As for her lyrics, they’re almost unintelligible, as if Pratt were trying to establish an extra layer of privacy inside her microcosm. Her clearest words register in pairs — it sounds as though she’s singing, “used to,” and “more than,” and “wrong side,” and, my favorite, “please understand” — suggesting that there are measurements being made, and that something is at stake, but we’re not privy to what. Maybe we’re still too big.
But keep listening, because when a songwriter pulls us in with such metaphysical magnetism, then sets boundaries, we’re probably in the presence of true greatness.
And while this music is so much more than an occasion for nightclub etiquette lessons, that’s exactly why the Brobdingnagian beer-bros who mysteriously show up at Pratt’s concerts expel such a discouraging aura. You don’t need good manners to get inside this music, but you definitely need an imagination.