Music Review: STONECHILD by Jesca Hoop
In Anwen Crawford’s 33 1/3 book on Live Through This, one fan, Nicole Solomon, credits Courtney Love for introducing the concept of motherhood to a rock genre dominated by men. “Courtney made motherhood the most fucking intense, crazy, rock’n’roll thing you could be writing about,” said Solomon. “I was… so struck by what a necessary corrective that was in the history of rock music.”
In folk music, motherhood has always been a central theme; many a folk song was improvised by mothers to soothe crying children, and in turn, inherited by those children when they bore children of their own. Elided in this long tradition of lullabies is the darkness of motherhood—all the notions that might spur nightmares rather than abate them. With Stonechild, Jesca Hoop complicates centuries of feminized folk music by singing about the ugly, violent aspects of motherhood. Stillbirth, spousal abuse, sexism inherited from mother to daughter—all claim vignettes on this record of electro-folk, seeking, much like Love did, to render motherhood in fucking intense terms.
The album’s thesis statement arrives early, in the opening of “Old Fear of Father,” when Hoop sings, “I love my boys more than I love my girl/She knows like I knew.” What follows is a regretful portrait of a woman so limited by her own possibilities that she can only imagine the same small, dim future for her daughter: “I’ll shape and mold you so you can get the ring while you’re still pretty.” Like Lucy Dacus on her recent Mother’s Day single, “My Mother & I,” Hoop imagines a mother as both inheritor and progenitor of misogyny. Her songs about this vicious circle reach centuries into the past, deploying subtle historical imagery and traditional melodies to awaken something atavistic. “Shoulder Charge” is especially masterful on this count, walking the tightrope between modernity and ancestry. A line like “These leathers shield my sadness so nobody sees” could refer to a woman in a bar, wrapped in a motorcycle jacket, downing whiskey, or they could call to mind Boudicca on the battlefield, decked out in Celtic armor to avenge her daughters. At the song’s end, the numb alienation of waiting on a subway platform, “shoulder to shoulder to shoulder,” is transformed by a single cry—“Charge!”—into an ancient call to arms.
“Outside of Eden,” a duet with Kate Stables of This Is the Kit and, lately, of the National, is the record’s most overt melding of old and new worlds as they apply to women’s lives. Hoop and Stables pose as digital sirens, singing to the incels of the world: “Come, shut-in boys, for the girlfriend experience/Enter the code and I’ll taste real.” The Garden of Eden is the song’s central, ambiguous metaphor: Do these men seek virtual-reality porn because they feel unworthy of real love, or is their digital Eden a soothing fantasy that shields them from the mortifying ordeal of being known? There’s empathy in Hoop’s lyrics for isolated, alienated men who seek intimacy in digital space, and a heavy dose of contempt for those who regard violent misogyny as a balm for their wounds.
The record’s production, by PJ Harvey and Aldous Hardingcollaborator John Parish, complements Hoop’s lyrical tension between past and present through the careful, restrained use of electronic elements, many so subtle they pass without notice on first listen. On “Foot Fall to the Path,” a sudden surge of electric guitar ruptures Hoop’s careful fingerpicking, making narrator’s desperation—“Why love if loving never lasts? I’ll never have what other lovers have”—all the more vivid. The murky filter of Parish’s production lends a grim heft to Hoop’s lyrics, sending would-be nursery rhymes like “Death Row” into witchy territory.
The album’s title, Stonechild, refers to a gruesome—and mercifully, exceedingly rare—biological phenomenon called lithopedia: a dead fetus, too large to be reabsorbed by the parent’s body, grows a calcified shell to shield the mother’s body from infected fetal tissue. A parent can carry a stone child for decades without knowing, and carry on having successful, uncomplicated pregnancies all the while. Stone babies have been a grim constant for centuries, documented as early as the 10th century and diagnosed as recently as 2015. The word is eerily apt for Hoop’s work, which lays bare the visceral terror lurking behind the traditional, tender lore of motherhood.