The “character album” was kind of sunk the second Garth Brooks first appeared in public as Chris Gaines. The massively successful country pop star wanted to step out in a new direction, so he adopted the persona of an Australian rock singer struggling with stardom. While few will look back fondly at the Gaines music itself, it’s actually not as bad as the hullabaloo surrounding its release would suggest. People were rolling eyes at a man lodged in a genre supposedly focused on authenticity pretending to be someone else. It wasn’t just the wig.
But that logic is faulty. We don’t condemn the likes of Rick Ross, KISS, and The Gorillaz — the idea of “character” seems okay as long as the artist didn’t build a non-character career prior to donning the makeup. Think of the witch-hunt involved in digging up Lana Del Rey’s backstory. But in fact, every piece of art deals in performance in some way, a chosen presentation of a side or version of a self. Though she didn’t release it under her own name, Haley Fohr’s most recent album as Circuit Des Yeux has roots in a folk genre that similarly relishes authenticity, especially tied to emotional connectivity and truth-telling. And yet, coming away from In Plain Speech, there’s something far more complex going on than a rote, diaristic explanation of Fohr’s reality. Expecting nothing but “honesty” is an unfair pigeonholing. To get beyond that, Fohr took up a wig of her own.
Her latest release comes under the guise of Jackie Lynn, a cocaine-dealing rebel from Tennessee on the run and searching for her lost love. Particularly interesting is the fact that Fohr presents this album both as a part of herself and of Jackie. In press for the album, she freely admits that Lynn is a character she created and adopts the perspective of, yet also describes her in third-person, no-nonsense terms, as if she were entirely separate. “It’s a secret adventure,” she told Loud and Quiet magazine. “I’m pushing the envelope of who am I, and who am I tonight … Living life as art is something I’m extremely interested in at this time.”
To that end, there are elements of her true self that Fohr must have known couldn’t be entirely erased from anything she released. Though she sings in shorter bursts, simpler melodies, and cooler tones, her voice is so unique that it couldn’t possibly be masked completely. Though it employs a bouncy bass, ping-pong synths, and a skipping rhythm rather than lush, near-orchestral sweeps, the sublime “Alien Love” features enough of her smoldering voice and evocative emotional lyrics to share clear roots with songs like In Plain Speech highlight “Fantasize the Scene”.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this record and her Circuit Des Yeux releases, though, is the clarity of the storytelling. While narratives emerged from the verdant soundscapes of past records, the songs tell far clearer tales, a short story sequence accompanied by a modernist take on country music. But that’s not to say that these are simple songs with clear messages; Fohr is too good a writer for that. Opener “Bright Lights” finds Jackie on her way to Chicago, leaving her past behind in favor of a new life as “queen of this city,” via “Greyhound 94, one-way, not looking back anymore.” Following that, “Chicken Picken” starts on a bubbly high, finding “freedom in a bag” at her highly specific scoring spot.
Beyond the cocaine cowboy business, the true depth to this album comes in the way Jackie’s personality allows Fohr to tackle gender politics and power dynamics. In that interview with Loud and Quiet, Fohr details a frustration with men telling her (and all women) what they can and can’t do, even noting an industry leader who discouraged her from this very album. That anger carries through here, but rather than evoking it in curious, beautiful poetry (as on In Plain Speech highlight “Do the Dishes”), it comes across here in sly revenge glory, powered by Jackie’s steely personality. On “Smile”, Jackie tells of a man asking her for a smile; “In high school, I had this teacher that was like, ‘Smile Haley, smile Fohr.’ And I had a secret fantasy where I strangled him to death,” she told Loud and Quiet. As Jackie, she’s able to voice that rage. “I’m so sick of these jocks with their little, tiny cocks,” she sighs. “I got bigger shits to give/ I’d like to find out where you live.” And it’s all done over slow organ push, skittering electronic percussion, and autoharp washes. On “Franklin, TN”, she’s on the revenge path back home, with a loaded gun ready to fire.
Much like a good piece of genre fiction, Jackie Lynn is quick, sharp, and full of intrigue. Like the best genre fiction, it offers some intriguing, well-rendered characters and interesting themes. And, at eight tracks (two of which are sub-minute interludes), the album leaves you wanting more. Fohr seems like the kind of hyper-literate, imaginative mind capable of releasing a dozen more chapters in the Jackie Lynn saga or exposing the lives of a dozen more characters. Or she could release another Circuit Des Yeux breathtaker. Either way, it’s clear no one will be telling her what to do.
Essential Tracks: “Alien Love”, “Chicken Picken”, and “Smile”