Album Review: Lauren Jenkins – ‘No Saint’

Lauren Jenkins

The short version: While there’s still the mystery of who Lauren Jenkins is, ‘No Saint’ is a compelling listen in all regards. More than that though, I’d say this album’s importance to the genre equally matches my enjoyment of it.

  • Favorite tracks: “No Saint,” “Give Up The Ghost,” “Blood,” “Maker’s Mark And You,” “Running Out Of Road,” “My Bar,” “Cadillac”
  • Least favorite track: “All Good Things”
  • Rating: 8/10

The long version: I never could have imagined that my introduction to a country artist would come through Mötley Crüe.

For those who remember that tribute album from 2014, you may also remember seeing an artist named Lauren Jenkins on the tracklist. I remember thinking her cover of “Looks That Kill” was good, but I also remember nobody knowing who she was either. Despite being signed to Big Machine Records for all these years, Jenkins has been relatively quiet. There have been no singles released to radio from this album, and Jenkins’ only other released music up to this point was an EP from 2016 called The Nashville Sessions, with all of the original tracks from that project transferring over to her debut album, No Saint.

As such, while there’s still the mystery of who Lauren Jenkins is, No Saint is an absolutely incredible album on all fronts. While the biggest draw to this album is Jenkins herself, between the stellar lyricism and production, my biggest criticism just might be that it will unfortunately get ignored due to a lack of promotional muscle behind it.

Yet for as much as I enjoy No Saint, I’m also willing to approach another topic I don’t usually address with reviews – cultural importance. Maybe it’s just because I had a conversation with a friend regarding this album, but in that conversation, he noted the disillusionment and dichotomy between country radio and country music. Granted, country music is a very broken family at this point, with some fans outright embracing the new changes and others flocking to the underground or “Americana.” But No Saint feels like a bridge between that gap, and in terms of modern country music, this is the kind of album that should pave the way forward for the genre.

Sonically, No Saint can be a bit scattershot, and that’s mostly due to the addition of the previous EP tracks. But it also highlights how much Jenkins has improved in terms of finding her own artistic identity. This album is moody and dark, with plenty of spacious arrangements, reverb and hints of pedal steel in the background to give this album a haunting mood.

What helps this album is that not only do the instrumental textures have some real crunch behind them, Jenkins is also adept at setting the mood with her tracks. Take opener “Give Up The Ghost” for example, where Jenkins’ cry for her lover to let go of an old flame feels all to real in its delivery. The heavy storm of pounding drums, minor chords and blazing electric guitar almost literally feel like a cathartic release for the narrator. Meanwhile, the aforementioned instrumental mix on softer tracks like “Maker’s Mark and You” and the title track work really well to highlight real intimacy. Then there’s the ending solo on “Running Out Of Road” which feels like Jenkins is coming to terms with the present circumstances and letting go.

As mentioned previously, the EP tracks do stick out, but the pure aforementioned strengths are still on display. “My Bar” is a scuzzy, electric pop-driven track filled with righteous anger, and the brighter, jangly acoustic pop of “Cadillac” fits the album’s anguished feel. On the other hand, “All Good Things” is definitely the weakest track here. It’s cluttered to the point where not even the horns stick out that much, and the odd vocal filter placed on Jenkins’ voice definitely make it ring as the most generic track here. It’s very out of place on this album.

Thankfully, the newer tracks on No Saint show improvements across the board, especially in the songwriting (and “All Good Things” was the only weak link to begin with). If there’s any running theme to No Saint, it’s that at the end of the day, Jenkins is fiercely independent. It may be reckless, but she’s willing to accept whatever consequences come around as she drinks her paycheck away on “Payday,” and she doesn’t care if her lover shares her wanderlust spirit on “Cadillac” – she’s going to travel onward regardless.

And that spirit extends toward most of the tracks too. No Saint play it straight and pull no punches. On “Give Up The Ghost,” she sorrowfully asks her lover to let go of an old flame since she feels left out of the relationship. “Running Out Of Road” sees her giving in to tired resignation as she tries to outrun a memory of her own. And then there’s “My Bar,” where Jenkins is quite fine with losing an old lover, the car and everything else. It’s when he tries to show off his new life at a bar she frequents where he crosses the line (simply put, it’s her bar, and the righteous fury is glorious). Frankly, it’s a refreshing lyrical point of view. Of course, that’s what also leads to the downfall of “You’ll Never Know.” The song carries a nice melodic groove, but it’s also a little too straightforward to really dig at any deeper emotions. It’s also one thing to namedrop a specific brand of whiskey on “Maker’s Mark and You,” but it’s another to namedrop it again within the next track, “Payday.” The product placement is a bit too obvious.

Elsewhere, Jenkins rarely casts judgment on this album, even on the relationship tracks where it’s earned through the framing. Instead, she tries to paint the entire picture or at least show some empathy for the other party. Part of that also extends toward the blame she puts on herself at points, and some of the more complex moments on No Saint are some of the finest moments on record this year.

The title track is one of the best examples I’ve ever heard of a song exploring the concept of forgiveness. The darker, ethereal production is at its best on this track, with Jenkins exploring this topic from a very grounded, understandable perspective. She knows it’s “wrong,” but she can’t bring herself to forgive her ex-lover. From our point of view and from the clues we get in the lyrical content, it’s not unjustified, but the fact that she still shows that empathy is what gives the writing on this album a unique mark. Conversely, “Blood,” by far the darkest track on this album, sees Jenkins confronting her sister who’s suffering from addiction and suicidal tendencies. It’s a heavy topic to tackle, especially with how close to home it is for Jenkins, but she handles it excellently through that grounded perspective.

And the ironic part is, for an album that sports a track about hard forgiveness is, Jenkins’ knack for crafting full pictures and giving life to all sides of the story is one of the album’s best elements. The other excellent element is Jenkins herself. Her voice reminds me most of Cyndi Thompson and Michelle Branch, formerly of the Wreckers, with more of a smoky, raw edge. In other words, most of the production and instrumentation works well when matched against her voice on this album. She’s raw and vulnerable on the title track and “Maker’s Mark and You,” but she’s also not afraid to really let go and howl on “Give Up The Ghost” and “My Bar.”

Again, the biggest shame of No Saint is its odd rollout. There’s certainly songs from here that would add a ton of flavor to country radio, yet the appeal apparently mostly lies in the mystery of who Jenkins is. As such, while it’s strange to see Jenkins lead her career with a darker, moodier project, it’s nonetheless potent. In terms of melodic hooks and vocal performances, No Saint is excellent, only helped by equally great writing. While it’s a bit scattershot in terms of its production, No Saint is nonetheless a fantastic example of an excellent modern country album.

(Decent 8/10)

(Author’s note – I don’t like posting music videos with reviews, but it’s apparently the only way to hear these songs on YouTube)

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