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Review: On Everybody Works, Jay Som Gracefully Masters the Art of Holding Back

Melina Duterte isn’t a belter; she delivers lyrics like gentle mantras, as if their repetition might produce a self-induced hypnosis, encircling herself in a world of her own making. “Sharing art, it’s not for everyone. I’m still working on that,” she recently told Pitchfork. And you could listen to Everybody Works, her debut album as Jay Som, a hundred times and still not feel as though Duterte is quite ready to completely open up. “Once, I was very brave,” she sings on the particularly confessional “(BedHead),” over a bed of murky, muffled guitars. “I stepped on the stage / It took my breath away.”

Nonetheless, here she is. Jay Som is Duterte’s one-woman band, whose breakout moment came in 2016 with Turn Into, a collection of songs that bubbled up on Bandcamp and turned their creator into a rising indie star. Turn Into was reissued by Polyvinyl, who also released Everybody Works, billed as Jay Som’s first full-length. Both albums were recorded by Duterte at her Oakland home, though Turn Into is so thoughtfully constructed it’s hard to hear it as a mere test run, despite its billing as a collection of demos.

But Everybody Works deserves the “real album” tagline, resisting the clichés of “bedroom pop” while holding tight to its introspective melancholia. Duterte’s lyrics are uncomplicated, but they speak to the kind of emotional quandaries that can be tough to put into words. Occasionally she sings to someone specific, maybe a lover, maybe a false friend: “You lie and you make believe / You can hide but you can’t deceive / I can’t tell you anything” (“The Bus Song”). More often, she attempts to describe what emotions feel like from the inside: “You’ve got me running in circles / My thinking pattern fades / Pull yourself away” (“One More Time Please”). There’s a humor to it, as when she sings, “My promises were never meant / I guess I’ll never feel okay” (“Everybody Works”), like an adult’s resigned nod to American Football’s classic anthem of teenage emotion.

The biggest growth on Everybody Works comes in Jay Som’s expanded sonic palette: fuzzy yet intricately detailed, blurred along the edges like pastel sand layered in a jar. The fuzzy power-pop of “1 Billon Dogs” wouldn’t sound out of place on Turn Into, but now it comes with a sprightly chirp and a brittle Black Tambourine edge. “The Bus Song” crashes down around its twinkly piano melody; “One More Time, Please” runs through a Blood Orange-esque minimal funk groove and a middle 8 of Wild Nothing synths on its way to a soaring guitar solo. Where Turn Into’s multilayered arrangements sometimes felt scrunched, Everybody Works blossoms. Its meticulous style of home recording causes “accidents” to feel considered: On “Take It,” the sound of a vibrating cell phone tucks into the mix just as smoothly as a proper instrument.

Jay Som’s superpower is in holding something in reserve: unafraid to be soft, and then loud when it’s called for and no longer. Duterte’s voice may never be a strong physical presence, but her sense of longing seems almost capable of bringing permanence to the ephemeral. “Fuck being patient / I’m fragile, I’m not weak,” goes one line from Turn Into, but it might as well be the Jay Som manifesto. Between the quick, lush opener “Lipstick Stains” and the slow, spiraling strum of closer “For Light,” Everybody Works catches an etching of inner life in amber. This isn’t an ambitious album; its very title embodies Duterte’s modest approach to her craft. But as she strives to demonstrate, there’s a thrill in the humility of working by oneself.