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Laura Jean - Devotion Music Album Reviews

Laura Jean - Devotion Music Album Reviews
The Australian folk-turned-pop singer revisits her eccentric, romantically unfulfilled teen years on an album that reaches for the coming-of-age immediacy of artists like Lorde and Taylor Swift.

Laura Jean opens her fifth album, Devotion, with a spectacular orchestral flourish—the kind that might signal the beginning of a dream sequence in an old movie musical. She sings as if in a daze about stolen glances and trepid desire, her words lifted skyward by synthetic strings and weightless, arpeggiating piano. The transportive song, “Press Play,” signals that listeners should rid themselves of any assumptions regarding the record’s grounding in Jean’s current reality.

The 36-year-old Australian folk-turned-pop singer long ago reached an age at which the episodes recounted in “Press Play,” involving “popular girls” and watching crushes stare out of school bus windows, faded from her day-to-day life. But Jean wrote Devotion as a tribute to her teenage years, a time when she was, by her own description, “eccentric” and “romantically-unfulfilled.” Throughout the album, she revisits her nascent sexuality and formative obsessions without glossing over her younger self’s complex emotional life, the way adult artists often do when depicting teens. Devotion is nostalgic by its very nature—yet, at its best, the album captures the experiences of first love and lust with remarkable immediacy, rather than the fuzzed-out romanticism of hindsight.

Jean’s retrospective gaze is especially sharp on “Girls on the TV,” which narrates a childhood friendship with a girl she calls “Ricky.” In adolescence, Ricky weathered her share of storms—bullying, drugs, sexual harassment—and Jean recounts them with both anguish and fierce optimism. Other songs on the album lack such robust narratives, but the vibrance of Jean’s storytelling is consistent; she has a way of surfacing small, unexpected details that often say more about a moment than endless exposition can. It’s a skill she shares with some of the best chroniclers of teen romance. When she sings, “I smell the humidity of the concrete,” while describing a budding dalliance on “Northerly,” she taps into the same sensory bliss that makes the opening lines of Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” so captivating. Lorde has praised Devotion’s lead single, “Touchstone,” for its eloquent “communication of the spooky, all-consuming nature of feminine love”—a subject the track shares with some of Lorde’s own songs, like “Writer in the Dark.”

Swift and Lorde documented their respective comings-of-age from different corners of the youth-obsessed pop space, and it’s fitting that Jean’s embrace of this same subject matter finds her straying from her folk roots, in favor of more pop-oriented sounds. When it comes to instrumentation, the transition feels natural: Jean’s voice is light enough to blend in with the pillowy synths she introduces and nimble enough to keep pace with upshifted percussion.

There are moments, however, when pop magic proves elusive. The success of songs like the ones on Devotion (and Fearless, and Melodrama) is often determined by the strength of their hooks. Pushed to write slicker, stickier tracks than ever before, Jean sometimes comes up short. At times, her attempts at lyrical simplicity yield extreme reductiveness: On “Which One Are You?,” she splits humanity into a series of binaries, then dreamily wonders which group her paramour falls into. Reaching for universal resonance, she grasps clichéd language instead.

In chronicling teen romance, Jean has taken on one of pop culture’s most commodified, trope-laden subjects. But it’s only when she leans into specificity and idiosyncrasy, rather than single-mindedly courting wide appeal, that she captures the spectacular novelty that makes young love worth revisiting in the first place.

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