by Jimmy Draper
Lies — those you’re told, those you tell others, and those you tell yourself — are at the crux of Sarah Dougher’s third solo album of folk-rock investigation into matters of the telltale heart. And like her previous, near-perfect recordings, The Bluff is no half-hearted exploration of deception, and it makes for no half-hearted listen. The ex-Looker’s revealing lyrics and conversational, direct delivery require serious attention: Songs this brutally honest shouldn’t be heard in passing, but in the heat of late-night contemplation.
Despite its emotional demands, The Bluff is by no means a musically difficult album. On the contrary, Dougher, who also performs in Cadallaca and the Crabs, writes relatively straightforward, wholly enjoyable folk and rock songs with her longtime collaborator Jon Nikki (Prima Donnas). The results are startlingly beautiful and reminiscent of a rowdier Elliott Smith circa ’97, with Dougher coming off like a more literary Carole King when she intimates secret observations about the lengths we go to fool ourselves and others in order to sustain relationships.
No matter how desperately we try, however, the truth inevitably comes out and — at least on The Bluff — rarely doesn’t hurt. “When I hold you in my arms/I must believe that you won’t do me any harm,” Dougher sings to a deceptive lover on “Must Believe,” defiantly believing fiction over fact.
It’s not until the title track, however, that Dougher admits, almost nostalgically, that she found a false sense of security in the lies she told herself: “It was the bluff that saved me.”
This (in)tense tug-of-war between denial and acceptance, between disguise and discovery, underlies every moment of The Bluff. Fittingly, its songs are often rougher, louder and more volatile affairs than Dougher’s previous work, perfectly capturing the heart-heavy enormity and confusion of the album’s tropes and themes. “I know what the difference is between my heart and my brain/And my heart wins just the same,” Dougher sings matter-of-factly, with neither relief nor triumph, all too aware that being honest with yourself doesn’t make love easier. It just makes it possible.
E-mail Jimmy Draper at firstname.lastname@example.org.