I was sent Jill Andrews’ upcoming album Thirties in January around the same time I was reading Melissa Broder’s book The Pisces. Both tell the story of being a woman in your 30s and feeling like “this isn’t how it’s meant to be”. I remember thinking how coincidental that I, a woman in her early 30s, who has also absorbed the notion that I am not what a 30-something should be like, is both reading and listening to pieces of art that also chronicle that same struggle. I say struggle because when you are told by magazines, by your friends, by work colleagues and by the world around you that you are “doing yours 30s wrong” when actually you are probably doing it right for you, it does feel like a struggle.
Here we are, at the end of March, and the world looks very different since January. Self-isolating and social distancing have become part of our everyday language. Shielding will now become yet another word to add to our everyday dictionary, which also includes words such as quarantine, pandemic, COVID-19. Words that would have felt far removed at the beginning of the year. A 2-metre distance will forever mean more than just a random measurement.
Jill Andrews released her third album Thirties, co-produced by Andrews and Lucas Morton on Friday. It follows on from her indie-pop masterpiece The War Inside, which was released in 2015. In the interim Andrews released songs for tv shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Good Wife and Nashville as well as forming the duo Hush Kids with Peter Groenwald and releasing their album of the same name.
Andrews obviously wrote Thirties not knowing that her album would be released during a pandemic nor that it will now become a much-needed soundtrack to add to our mental armour of trying to get through the day without having a nervous breakdown. I am not going to try to associate Thirties with the pandemic because that would be forcing art to become something it is not, but as a writer, I have to acknowledge what is going on across the world.
The album may not be about what to do or how to cope in pandemic or full of social distancing love songs, though I hope we are going to get some of those soon, but it is about expectation versus reality, of throwing away the idea of what you or your life or your career or your family should like and accepting what it is in this moment.
The album is also accompanied by a book of essays with each chapter named after a song on the record. For a taste of what the book will be like, Andrews released an audio chapter to go alongside one her singles, the infectious ‘Gimme the Beat Back’. The prose is strikingly honest and brutal. If music provides an ambiguity and shadow to a song, the written explanation is the story pulled brutally into the light and asked to explain itself.
Thirties traverses not only the heartbreak and the love that inevitably follows but also the space in-between those seismic shifts. In the press release it says, “the stories of a woman often go untold. Her struggles are kept as secrets. Her victories, discreet. Her pain, polite and unobtrusive. History records the ones who break her heart and the ones who mend it, yet it forgets the life and truth born in between. Jill Andrews gives these unsung moments the voice they have always deserved.”
The mundane or the everday that fall in between the pages of love and loss, are songs like ‘The Party’ where Andrews softly critiques the gender imbalance of women having to push their life to one side to look after the home and children, whilst for men the thought of going to the party or staying home to look after the baby rarely figures as a choice to be made.
Tell me what would happen/ If I just laid down/ Refused to get up/ ‘Til you came around/ Would the baby wake you?/ Would the morning sun?/ Would this old house crumble?/ Everything come undone
‘The Kids Are Growing Up’ is another of the everyday moments being given space to exist. We’ve all heard it said a hundred times that once you have children time seems to accelerate. Andrews takes this well-worn subject and turns it into a big, bright and soaring song that with its urgent vocals, gives it a fresh perspective.
Thirties is also about what Andrews wants from her life, even if it involves shouting over the faceless voices of the crowd. On ‘My Own Way’ she sings about being on her own but not being alone. An anthemic song weighing up all the reasons why there are worse things than being single, even if it’s not we’re sold in all the books, movies, songs and conversations with friends.
Rather be an island/ Than at war with you/ Rather be barefoot/ Than in my old shoes/ Rather be the rhythm/ Than the blues
On the album cover Andrews is photographed dancing but where there should be a partner, there is an empty space; she is dancing happily or unhappily, the choice is up to you, with herself. The rest of artwork for the album and the book are in this same vein, with Andrews standing alone next to an empty chair where someone should be sitting or a man’s faced crossed out of a wedding photo with duct tape. The love and the loss are just as visible and just as loud as the space in the photos.
Andrews gives us words to all those experiences and feelings that mostly go unnamed because we cannot find the words. The exquisitely sad ‘Sold My Heart’ where the words and the music perfectly line up like stars in the night sky. Andrews gives words to the feeling of selling your heart out for something you know doesn’t exist and the lies you tell yourself to keep what was never yours to begin with.
If I’d have known our sky/ Was full of fallen stars/ Would I have ever looked up/ Or stayed in the dark/ I trick myself sometimes/ Just to play the part/ I think I sold my heart out
Or ‘Falling For’, a slow, languid country song that slowly soars in the chorus but lands softly back down to where it started, Andrews asks that unanswerable question, “what am I falling for?/ how is it different this time?”.
‘River Swimming’ is the light streaming in through window onto the bed where that once empty space is now filled. There is an innocence to the song, of river swimming in the dark with your love, feeling completely safe as you fall in love like you’ve never been hurt.
You’re like swimming in the river in the darkness/ Never have to question where my heart is
Thirties ends with the words, “Do it over again/ Think of life as your friend” from the final song ‘The Way To Go’. Those words feel fitting for an album that wrestles with all the noise telling you what you “should be” as a 30-something year old woman, but then saying fuck it and doing life the way you want and how you want to anyway.
We may all be shut in our houses for the foreseeable future but maybe while we are all desperately wanting to return to our normal, this pause will give us the chance to decide what parts of our normal we really want to continue on with. And it may not be the parts we left behind all those weeks ago.