Exposed Offering from Mayfield
There seems to be a tendency today to regard the confessionality of a piece of art as a metric of its quality. The underlying reasoning for assessing work through this lens is valid, as a creator’s openness to exposure is laudable, even inspiring on personal and societal levels. But there is no excuse for lazy art, or worse (and not always at the fault of the artist), art that becomes insulated from criticism due to its confessional nature.
And so we have the unique case of Jessica Lea Mayfield’s Sorry Is Gone, an album that details the emotions surrounding a harrowing period of spousal abuse, escape from it, and reflection upon it with admirable, sometimes penetrating rawness that does so with ’90s alternative and grunge-leaning music that almost forcefully bars a listener from whatever emotional revelations it harbors with its astonishing dullness.
This is still not “lazy art” — not in all aspects, anyway. From a songwriting perspective, it is generally successful, with Mayfield navigating the nexus of her situation’s conflicting emotions assuredly. That entails unwavering candor regarding its conflicts, contradictions and uncertainties. Mayfield reaches a good place, with songs like “Wish You Could See Me Now,” “Offa My Hands” and the title track bearing marks of the darkness she endured but ultimately relegating it to the past and signifying a more positive present and future.
The songs that detail the nadir of her relationship, though, are more painful and more powerful for it. The nightmarish album centerpiece “Soaked Through” unnervingly and realistically documents manipulation and trauma, as Mayfield confesses, “My heart wants all the bad things / I used to let it have / My lonely hell is waiting for me / I’m always wrapped up in it / Whatever it might be / I’m soaked through and disintegrating.” In the resigned “Maybe Whatever,” she finds the sweet spot between comedy and sorrow with opening line, “The shotgun’s under the futon / This is not my idea of fun / I wish happiness on everyone I know,” before delving more firmly into the latter emotional range with, “The human body’s an amazing thing / Bruises heal and your mind can change / Can we convince ourselves we’re not what we need?”
It’s very visceral and affecting within its context but the importance of that context to a listener’s response cannot be overstated; Sorry Is Gone is an album whose strength is largely derived from knowledge outside of its borders. Mayfield’s lyrics are forceful but music is not (by a strict definition) poetry and cannot stand on the strength of words alone. If you listen to this music without knowing Mayfield’s background, it will not find a way into your head. The compositions are desultory, Mayfield’s singing somnambulant, and the watery production sinks most songs to a sludgy, grooveless obscurity. The solo acoustic “Safe 2 Connect 2” and almost breezy “Offa My Hands” and “Too Much Terrible” offer brief variation and function as respites from the aurally monochromatic, dreary whole but they can’t save Sorry Is Gone. Mayfield recently remarked that creating this record had therapeutic value, and that inarguably transcends any critical measure. But for the qualities within reach, Sorry Is Gone disappoints.