The songs of Sarah Jarosz have always been snapshots. Each, whether literally or obliquely, is a tableau – a window into a moment in time, an attempt to capture but never contain the intangible present. Whether demonstrable story songs or abstract, poetic text paintings, Jarosz’s catalog of material shows a ubiquitous skill – a writerly athleticism – for ushering her listeners into the scenes she inhabits or constructs. From her earliest release to her newest, Polaroid Lovers (out January 26 on Rounder Records), Jarosz’s point of view has been confident, relatable, and inviting.
Simultaneously, the expansive body of work she’s produced since her 2009 Sugar Hill debut, Song Up in Her Head, tells a tale as much of uncertainty as of skill and finesse and, within that uncertainty, a commitment to relishing the journey – rather than rushing toward an arbitrary destination.
A teenager when she first gained national notoriety, Jarosz was often compared to her mentor-peer-friend Chris Thile and her contemporary, Sierra Hull. While child bluegrass, Americana, and string band stars – proverbial and oft-mythologized prodigies – have a much more gentle route to adulthood than say, their Hollywood counterparts, it’s still a time hallmarked by experimentation, growing pains, exploration, and a prerequisite amount of floundering. Musically, Jarosz may have “floundered” a bit less than say, Hull or Thile or any kid whose teen years may have had a recorded, audio history. Nevertheless, you can trace a through line of angst, introspection, and finding oneself underlying the precocious self confidence of her early albums.
By the time Jarosz reached 2013’s Build Me Up From Bones, which gained her her first Best Folk Album Grammy nomination, that uncertainty was no longer an undertone, but a focal point in her music. On both Bones and the follow up full-length, Undercurrent, which then won the Grammy for Best Folk Album, Jarosz picks up and runs with those musical expectations, whether overt or projected. She plays with the dichotomy between the public nature of her growing up a heart-on-her-sleeve songwriter and bluegrass picker and the individual, private nature of seeking and finding her own agency within those paradigms. She purposefully built broad and appealing, commercial songs that are both assured in their sincerity and unconcerned with virtuosity or authenticity for their own sakes. She knows exactly what she’s doing, even – if not especially – when she does not.
Needless to say, the following projects World On The Ground and Blue Heron Suite feel like they are both indelible home bases built on the steady foundation of the albums that led to them. Each are distillations of Jarosz’s musical commitment to bringing her audience inside the turmoil and delight, growth and doubt, beauty and bittersweetness of life and song. Jarosz had arrived at her destination, hadn’t she? In her beloved New York City, a Grammy winning artist, picker, and songwriter who knows who she is and why she does what she does.
Ah, but remember, it’s the journey Sarah Jarosz is after and not the destination. Polaroid Lovers is a lens into the new growing pains, the new uncertainty, the new uprooting and, eventually, re-rooting Jarosz finds herself in the middle of now. She recently moved to Nashville, building a life with her new husband, bassist Jeff Picker. Polaroid Lovers, like its predecessors, brings the listener into how living in Nashville has reshaped Jarosz’s songwriting and creative and recording processes.
It may not sound like a Music Row album – it sounds, as all of her work does, exactly like Sarah Jarosz. Whatever that sounds like! – but it’s a collection that has the Row tangled among its roots and certainly in the water. Polaroid Lovers was recorded at Sound Emporium and produced by Daniel Tashian, plus it has many a credited co-writer, a bit of a departure for the songwriter who, besides in her work with Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins in I’m With Her, rarely co-writes material for her own albums, preferring to pen most lyrics and tunes herself. Music Row and Americana hit writers like Ruston Kelly, Natalie Hemby, Jon Randall, Gordie Sampson, Tashian, and others each lent their own fingerprints and touches to this set of song snapshots.
Does Polaroid Lovers sound new? Does it sound like Nashville? Yes, it certainly does, but it doesn’t sound instant or ready-made either, and it always sounds like quintessential Jarosz. This is evidenced nowhere on the record as strongly as one of its lead singles, “Columbus & 89th.” Among more than a few masterworks in Jarosz’s catalog that center on her beloved, transplanted (former) hometown, New York City, “Columbus & 89th” is perhaps the best example of the form. Wistful and hopeful, with a tinge of bittersweetness from the wisdom that comes with age, it paints such a specific picture – of a literal street corner – but, as in all of her snapshots, this polaroid is not confining or finite, it’s resplendent and limitless. Following the photography metaphor one step further, it’s not difficult to see how the perspective Jarosz has gained by moving away from the city might have enabled her to render such a picture perfect homage to New York.
This is a vibrant, animated collection of Polaroid Lovers. This is Sarah Jarosz at her best– for now.
Watch for our Artist of the Month interview feature with Jarosz to come later this month, plus we’ll do a catalog deep dive and showcase plenty more content pulled from the BGS archives. For now, enjoy our Essential Sarah Jarosz Playlist:
Photo Credit: Shervin Lainez