Few albums in the Americana genre this year carry the musical and lyrical weight of Jemima James’ When You Get Old with such grace and light-footed authority. There isn’t a single one of the thirteen songs included on this outing that sounds unsure of itself or direction. They are recorded with the greatest of intimacy and the suggestion that the players are never too far from the listener’s ear invests the collection with a level of sensitivity and delicacy that many releases aspire to, but few reach. James has obviously perfected a style or technique that draws freely from her vast knowledge of traditional American music without ever making a great show of that knowledge. The songs are unassuming, but their melodic content embeds itself in the listener’s consciousness and lingers long after the last notes are played.
It takes real talent to make important, personal statements with beguiling melodies and understated vocals. Few songs on this release illustrate that better than the title song and first track “When You Get Old”. This isn’t some track bemoaning the gradual loss of physical and mental ability that comes with aging. Instead, it’s intelligent, serious and light-hearted in turns, and complemented perfectly by the sweet arrangement. “Magician” has the same appealing melodic virtues, but it is perhaps a little more overtly serious than the opener. However, there’s a playful edge still at work in James’ vocal that tempers the hints of darkness surrounding the lyrical content. Jemima James understands how to present adult situations and emotions to the listener while still bringing the sweetness that her audience desires.
“Beaver Moon” could almost be a sister song to “Magician” musically, but the lyric is much less interior and, instead, shows off James’ penchant for lyrical imagery that invokes the personal while still finding universal resonance. “If It’s the End” has many of the same qualities, but the musical virtues more often than not reference classic country instead of folk and blues influences. Her ear for exceptional imagery returns in “Bats in the Belfry”, but there’s another quality that emerges strongly from this song. The conversational eloquence of James’ lyrical content succeeds, in part, because she can mine our common lexicon for moments of transcendent emotional content. We recognize phrases like “bats in the belfry” from our everyday life and it helps illuminate the world she creates in the song.
“Tennessee Blues” has similar strengths and mixes country and blues music tropes in a familiar, yet inspired fashion. “Easy Come, Easy Go” has an optimistic arrangement and tilt to her voice that vividly contrasts with the relatively heavy lyrical content. The album’s penultimate track “Slow Dancing with You” is pure romance and the relaxed confidence of the musical performance keeps it from ever sounding too saccharine. Some listeners might long for a little more musical variance from the release, but the collection is quite solid on nearly every count and James’ songwriting has obviously only gained in meaning and depth over the years since her first recordings. When You Get Old will be a valuable addition to the music collection of anyone who loves Americana music and sincerity.
8 out of 10 stars