Listen to this track from transplanted-to-Britain American singer-songwriter and experimental popist Jesca Hoop. It’s “The Kingdom”, the second track off of her 2009 full-length record Hunting My Dress.
Jesca Hoop had contacts with the music world even before she herself started her professional recording career, being the daughter of folk-singing Mormons in Northern California, where she learned her craft for close harmony. Later on, she served five years as Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s nanny, of all things.
Subsequently after Waits championed her, she appeared as an opening act for artists as diverse as Matt Pond PA, Mark Knopfler, Eels, and The Polyphonic Spree. She’s sung back-up for Peter Gabriel. After having opened for Elbow, Hoop has moved to Manchester on the invitation of Elbow singer Guy Garvey.
She’s also worked on soundtracks, working up songs for the film Riding The Bus With My Sister, with soundtrack composer and drummer Stewart Copeland, who then appeared on her song, “Seed of Wonder“, which appears on her 2007 debut album Kismet.
But, Hoop has a singular voice of her own besides all of the artists with whom she’s had contact, with this song standing out for me as an example of her ability to balance weighty moods with light as air music.
“The Kingdom” sounds like a tale of the Crusades, with battlefields, kings, promises of heaven abounding in the lines. There’s definitely a note of religious fervour here, mixed up in the imagery of war. This is certainly a coupling that we’re all too familiar with, what with crusades of our own happening in the 21st Century, with Islam demonized in the West, and Christianity demonized in the Middle East and in Afghanistan.
In the song, the narrator is commissioned by a spirit in a dream to collect the souls of the fallen in battle, to presumably help to usher them into the afterlife. What the song does for me is to contrast how battle in holy wars was once viewed in many cultures (and in some cultures as we know, still is), including in the middle ages during a time when the “protection” of the Holy Land was portrayed as something glorious, and providing instant elevation to spiritual reward which is seen as more important than the life we live on earth.
Yet, here in the 21st century, that idea in the West is an anachronism to how we understand war, our earthly lives, and how many of us understand and are repulsed by religious teachings that espouse war and violence as an act of devotion. Where attitudes about dying for a Holy cause was once thought to be an act of piety, we now understand it as dehumanizing, tragic, and of service only to those who profit from it once the dead are carrried away. The contrast between these two takes is the beating heart of the song.
Of course it helps that Hoop has constructed a melody, and textures around the lyrics which add another layer still. Sound effects, acoustic guitar, gentle beats, treated vocals, and electronic washes, all creating a sort of fusion between Renaissance folk and experimental pop, not completely unlike Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming”. Jesca Hoop’s voice is a transatlantic chant, sometimes soaring, sometimes whispering. All in all, it’s subtle, and magical, full of possibilities while at the same time evoking some well-travelled themes that resonate with our cultural subconscious.