Jess Cornelius Creates Tautly Constructed Snapshots of Life

The titular distance chronicled on Jess Cornelius’ solo debut album can be measured in a plethora of ways: geographical as someone born and raised in New Zealand before moving to Australia and now residing in Los Angeles, but also the separation between lovers and the chasm between social expectations and personal dreams, the ideals of love and its nitty-gritty, the past and the future.

Distance builds upon the promise displayed by the former Teeth & Tongue singer-songwriter on her 2017 EP, Nothing Is Lost. Recorded in Los Angeles as full band arrangements with personnel including members of War on Drugs, Warpaint, and Woods, Cornelius’s opus delivers a nifty brand of introspection which channels the sharp observations and gutsy indie-rock confessionals of Sharon Van Etten, exhaling a shrieking and swooping catharsis flecked with Americana, scuzzy grunge and even 1980’s pop.

The songs presented here cannily negotiate and navigate interrogations of love, betrayal, loss, and guilt and strike a balance between indulgence and confrontation, building a fervent, thrumming momentum like a steam train before making peace and landing softly and peacefully.

Through an Angel Olsen-like, impassioned folk-rock prism, album opener “Kitchen Floor” examines the ambivalent feelings experienced by the demise of a relationship. There’s the pathos of failure and farewells but also the sense of an opening of possibilities, the promise of rejuvenation and independence, as Cornelius’s vocals alternate between a smoky croon and visceral keening.

The glowing bespoke riff and exhilaration of “Here Goes Nothing” and hassled perspective of “Banging My Head” are both raucous and raw, drawing from the arsenals of classic PJ Harvey and Liz Phair, whilst the becalmed shoegaze of “Palm Trees” exudes a lonesome sweetness in its sepia-tinged doo-wop that’s never cloying. It demonstrates the significant strides she has made as a vocalist. “No Difference” begins as a breezy slice of Mac DeMarco-like beach-pop that wafts between slinky R&B and sober meditation before flourishing in an avalanche of ringing timbres receding into a wall of reverb.

On the electropop charge of “Body Memory”, Cornelius unflinchingly recounts the aftermath of a miscarriage over a rinky-dink drum machine and the purring electronics of a torrid synth, exploring the psychic scarring of lovers. “When we met I used to make you laugh / Then we lost a baby, and it broke my heart / Now I find it hard, to be that funny now / I tried to tell you that I can’t rewind / I can’t walk backwards in my mind / ‘Cause my body has a memory, and it won’t forget.”

On occasion, Cornelius nimbly wanders out of her comfort zone, with devastating results. Take the reminiscence of isolation on “Born Again”, for instance, a slice of somber, Laura Marling-styled balladry that swivels around subtle synths, filigreed acoustic guitar and gently plucked harp courtesy of Mary Lattimore. “One of these days, I’m going to be born again,” she confides, as though preparing to claw back the passing years. Likewise, “Easy For No One” is dyed in the languid wilderness sound of Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters and country pastoral. It establishes stately patterns and deftly blurring the distinction between vintage and modern as she meditates on the futility of the road not taken. “I keep wasting my time on other things / Like thinking of the past and all the other lives I could have lived instead.”