“I’m obsessed with the dark side of religion,” Jesca Hoop said in a 2017 interview. The singer/songwriter, who’s been drifting in and out of mainstream indie-folk for a decade now, was raised as a Mormon in California. Now, she’s challenging religion en-masse and residing in the U.K., but her fascination with the sinister hasn’t waned. If anything, it’s more pronounced than ever.
On STONECHILD, the follow-up to 2017’s Memories Are Now, Hoop goes looking for darkness in places usually reserved for light and love, particularly motherhood. In STONECHILD’s shadowy universe, feelings are frightening, death is a relief and motherhood is more a curse than a blessing. It’s the human relationship that supposedly requires more empathy and sacrifice than any other, but in these twisted tales, that bond between a mother and child is shattered more often than not.
“I love my boys more than I love my girl,” Hoop sings on “Old Fear of Father,” affirming the often scandalous notion that parents pick favorites. The song also speaks to a kind of misogyny so deeply ingrained in us that women themselves perpetuate it. “Don’t look to me to hold you / I shape and mould you,” she sings in an eerie coo, one that sounds like it got lost on its way to a lullaby. “So you can get the ring / While you’re still pretty.” Is that all a mother wants for her daughter? To marry well and young, to pass safely from her arms to that of a protective partner’s? Hoop isn’t afraid to ask. She invades a mother’s subconscious—but not the one fellow folkie Lori McKenna describes on songs like “A Mother Never Rests,” swollen with love and worry. On that song, a mother still thinks of her child “even when she’s sleepin’.” In Hoop’s songs, that preoccupation is a trap.
But it’s not until “Passage’s End” when Hoop finally mentions the titular stone child, a reference to the extremely rare phenomenon in which a fetus dies during pregnancy and is unable to be reabsorbed by the body, forming a stone-like hull to protect the mother from infection. Hoop has clearly given a lot of thought to motherhood’s grimmest angles, and to the dark side of familial society as a whole.
Women are again in danger on “Outside of Eden,” a beautiful, if at it times strange ditty shared with Justis and This is the Kit’s Kate Stables (a currently in-demand vocalist who also appears on The National’s latest release) that describes a paradise for “virtual love” where men can fulfill their dark romantic fantasies online. “Red White and Black” is an expat’s hate mail to a U.S. fraught with racism and all manner of systematic oppressions.
But don’t mistake all these malign sentiments for a kind of hopelessness. Despite all the tenebrosity, or maybe because of it, Hoop is chasing human connection on this album, which teems with delicate acoustics and sneaky electronic elements. She seems wholly concerned with examining empathy—even for gross internet trolls—in a world deprived of it, and there are few quests as noble.
The best example of that mission is “Shoulder Charge,” a hair-raising, slow-burning anthem featuring Lucius, who are always a bright, warm presence on any piece of music they touch. It opens with Hoop singing alone, “I’ve been going through something quietly, so quietly,“ but then Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig join in, offering a powerful harmony. Where there was once solitude and pain there is now community and comfort. “I found myself holding the thread that I might trust a friend, that we might just all be in this together,” Hoop sings, before leaving us with what might be the perfect thesis for STONECHILD: Even with all its tales of tormented women, demented nursery rhymes and broken nations, “Empathy is contagious.”