It is little surprise Jesse Lynn Madera demonstrates such natural musical aptitude. Like virtually every great musician who came before her, Madera grew up surrounded by music in a family rife with musicians and began exploring her own creativity at an early age. It isn’t everyone who can count famed Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson as a family friend and mentor. She has an earlier EP to her credit, but Fortunes is her first studio album, a seven song collection loaded with fantastic compositional strengths, flashes of pure poetry, and full of personality. It is serious fare for the most part though Madera never threatens to leave her listeners mired in despair. This is the sound of a young songwriter grappling with life’s changes, but it also packs a joyful punch thanks to Madera’s irrepressible creativity.
“Dante” shows off her talents as a lyricist and singer, though even more impressive moments will follow. She has the uncanny ability to delineate a character with only a few key words and the subject of her song comes to life not just because of well-chosen details but, likewise, the obvious feeling Madera invests in their well-being. Stevie Blacke’s strings help fill out the song — without them, this would be an effective but rather spartan affair. It is apparent, based on this song alone, that Madera is comfortable working within the singer/songwriter genre and has the skill to revisit familiar themes with her own idiosyncratic approach to language.
The album’s third song “The Door” doesn’t spend as much time exploring the character of its subject, it’s much more insular chronicling Madera’s reactions, but it is nonetheless exceptional. The ambiguous nature of the song’s title reveals itself at the conclusion, a well-orchestrated verbal climax that puts an emphatic exclamation point on this tale of love scorned in favor of another. Blacke’s string arrangement for this song doesn’t occupy quite as much space as it does in the opener but is strong and memorable.
“Funny Man” focuses on nothing else but Madera’s voice, piano playing, and tasteful upright bass providing ballast for the track. It’s another example of her talent for bringing outside characters to life with a few well-chosen brushstrokes but, once again, the real focus here is how the situation affects Madera. There’s a thin layer of sarcasm or perhaps bitterness I hear in the song’s lyric, but it is never unpleasant \. “You, With the Sullen Eyes” is my favorite song on the album thanks to the strong vocal chemistry Madera and guest vocalist John Hawkes share, but the lyrics are even better. This is Madera in full poetic flight and the way she structures the song’s development is fantastic from beginning to end.
“Fortunes” ends the album on the same reflective note that runs throughout the album. It’s fitting and brings things to an eloquent and carefully wrought conclusion rather than ending the release with something abrupt or otherwise out of character. Jesse Lynn Madera’s career is still in its infancy, but her tremendous talents offer ample evidence she is far from a novice. Fortunes is one of the best singer/songwriter albums I’ve heard in 2020.