Sarah Jaffe: Don't Disconnect (Taft Theatre 9/23)

I started writing these blog posts because I am an amateur songwriter and moonlight as a musician every now and then.  I’m not “quit your day job” good when it comes to the music, but let’s just say I’m into it.  After almost two years of writing songs I was hoping to find some inspiration for new tones, new melodies, or different ways of approaching a song overall by listening to music I normally wouldn’t come across.  When the call for a review for Sarah Jaffe’s “Don’t Disconnect” came up, I read the little blurb that described her as a singer-songwriter whose newest album is an even further departure from her folk beginnings.  That’s what I wanted to listen to.  Singer-songwriters are my jam, and this particular one had been on a journey.  

Not knowing what I would hear when I started listening to the album, I wanted to find the best free way to listen to it.  I pulled ol’ Spotify up on my phone and found Don’t Disconnect, then put my ear buds in while I was at work.  Nothing makes your cubicle feel like you have a fourth wall like ears full of groovy tunes, and this album was easy to get lost in.  I heard instrumentation I haven’t really paid attention to in a while with a more synth-pop sound to it, but the guitar licks and tasteful choices of effect on every sound kept me hooked.  Jaffe’s vocals are just beautiful, not just in her execution but in the way she phrases her songs to make use of her voice as an instrument.  The lyrics throughout the album weave through themes of a love leaving, and a lover knowing she needs to let it go but fears the disconnection.  This isn’t some “woe is me” breakup anthem record.  This is more of an opera written in a mature voice.  Given that I was listening to a free version of the album on shuffle, I was at the mercy of what order Spotify was going to select for me.  I heard a handful of the songs two or three times each before some of the others, and I heard a half a dozen songs from Jaffe’s prior albums.  Even when acoustic guitar and piano were her preferred instruments, I could still hear a very strong talent for music and lyric writing.  The difference between her early work and Don’t Disconnect isn’t just the musical experience, but a gravity and maturity to her performance as well.  It is indeed true that Sarah Jaffe has taken big steps with each album, almost like she emerges as a different artist each time.  Even in shifting styles and bending of genres, she still finds a way to connect to the listener.

For most reviews, I would write out quotable lines from the songs in an attempt to relay their tone or theme.  I don’t think that approach would do this album justice because of the way the songs are structured.  Rather than multiple, wordy verses, I found single lines or stanzas repeated through songs that used the lyrics and vocal melodies in balance with dynamic musical tones.  Songs like “Leaving the Planet”, “Ride it Out”, and “Revelation” are great examples of Jaffe making room for modern instrumentation to take a lead role in expressing the song’s emotion.  I can easily listen to this album front to back, but if I had to pick favorites to recommend I would list the following:

Some People Will Tell You
As a writer I really enjoyed the lyrics.  They are insightful, and rather than be complainy about others, she seems to include herself in her reflections on human nature, admitting her own flaws.  Love the crossfades and mix levels to modern musical sounds.  Sarah Jaffe’s voice is beautiful on this track.  Rather than repeat that last sentence for every song, just know it’s going to be true for anything she sings.

"These are the same thoughts I had yesterday"... Just like “Some People Will Tell You”, Jaffe lays her vulnerabilities out for the listener to relate to.  Sometimes our own selves can get in the way of connecting with others, and “Fatalist” tells that story with lyrics that explain a trouble connecting.  The music to this song is a beautiful accompaniment to the lyrics by sounding sad without getting dark and depressing, which is one of the reasons why I hear the tone of this album to be about the self-realization that can happen after separating from another person. 

This song may have my favorite lyrics of the album.  Like “Fatalist” and “Some People Will Tell You”, Jaffe opens herself up on this song to share the wisdom she gained in herself.  I think we can all relate to getting defensive, but the insight to this song is in how she wants to protect herself from her own reactions.  "Don't push the button - just leave it alone".  Like the other favorites I mentioned by name, “Defense” is on the list because it is a powerful combination of lyrics, music, and production.  

Don’t Disconnect
The bass notes and low drone to this song are a nice complement to the handful of lines like, “Do you still feel me?”, “The sooner I leave, the sooner I can go home”, and “Don’t disconnect yet”.  The song finds the right slow pace to keep the sad tone without dragging on.  The exploration of tones feel like a mirror image of the sense of exploration going on in the artist as she sings those lines.  For a minute during this song, I pictured Lloyd Dobler in his Chucks and trench coat, holding up a boom box with this song playing, until I decided that image doesn’t fit the song’s message.  The artist isn’t trying to get anyone back and she isn’t necessarily seeking a response from the person she is talking about.  It’s more like she is singing the inner thoughts that are better off kept as personal reflections.

Artists are deeply feeling.  They can be strong in love and strong in loss, and they can use their powers of perception and ability to relate to reveal a great deal to others.  I found Don’t Disconnect to be thoroughly enjoying and a wonderful surprise, not just as a songwriter and musician but as someone who can appreciate the growth that comes from self-reflection.  Sarah Jaffe has put herself out there as wide-open and bravely vulnerable on this one, and did it with artistic expertise.  The bottom line to any music is that it has to be something people can listen to, and you can rest assured there is layer after layer of things for you to listen to on this album.  If Sarah Jaffe’s live production at the Taft Theatre captures anything close to the album’s quality, fans will be glad they got themselves a ticket.