Review Summary: Beautiful emo-folk for people who like to feel things.
In a sea of twinkling emo-folk artists, it can be nearly impossible to stand out. Such is the fate of many startup projects in the streaming era, where more talent evades the public eye than enters its crosshairs. Make Sure feels like one of those cases, an instance of an acoustic guitar wielding man - Josh Jackson - playing his brand of heart-on-sleeve slowcore that may or may not pass the Spotify skim test while subtle intricacy and lyrical poignancy reside at its core. Ninjutsu
is the second LP from Make Sure, and the first on a major label (Tooth & Nail), offering a glimmer of exposure to one of emo-folk's finer gems. Jackson seizes the opportunity with ten stunning moments of lovelorn musings and emotional clarity, a journey that seemingly feels everything while keeping its gaze affixed beyond the transience of present heartache.
The totem poles for comparison in the emo genre are often The World is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die and Jimmy Eat World's earliest stint. There are vocal similarities with the former and lyrical ties to the latter, although musically Make Sure feels coziest next to a project like Owen. The music is acoustically driven and slowly paced, but no less beautiful for it. Emo aficionados can dissect direct comparisons further, but that's a roughly accurate place to begin expectations as you approach Ninjutsu
. It's all about letting your guard down and immersing yourself in sad, delicate memories; these moments that seem on the verge of shattering if not for Jackson's optimistic bend.
establishes its pensive atmosphere immediately and maintains it throughout. 'Is That You Ninjutsu' rocks gently to-and-fro, almost a nod to Clarity
's opener 'Tables for Glasses', although rather than swelling to a resplendently layered chorus (like Jimmy Eat World always tends to), this one fades out to a section of prolonged static/reverb. That's an appropriate introduction for a record that rarely qualifies as flashy, even less-so than your typically understated emo-folk fare. The majority of the song is pinned up by Jackson's wistful delivery surrounding lines like "I found dark hair on my car seat / I remember, you and me" and occasional piano notes chiming in. It's a quiet and reflective tone setter, but that's how Ninjutsu
typically rolls - placing the onus on contemplative verses and subtle instrumental flourishes rather than memorable hooks.
Despite the relative absence of anything that could be qualified as exciting or catchy, Ninjutsu
still thrives. Whether it's the pastoral acoustic guitars/piano and beautiful vocal harmony with Preslea Elliott on 'Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say' (culminating in the affecting verse, "I guess you'll forget any nights that we spent together when you fell asleep in my arms...I forgot to walk myself back home"), or the string-swept gut-punch of 'Japanese Bonus Track' ("When I swing at myself I never miss"), Ninjutsu
's spacious atmosphere leaves plenty of room to be filled by the big feelings and eloquent expressions of Josh Jackson. 'Tiger Shark' is perhaps the best prototype/microcosm of the bunch, a bare bones acoustic track that is nevertheless absorbing because the acoustics are incredibly lush and the lyrics are so relatably melancholic: "you only think of me in the past tense." This sort of songwriting doesn't grab you by the throat, but it definitely grips your heart.
Jackson is arguably at his best when he's combining these sad, meditative moments with a plethora of complementary instrumental pieces. For example, 'Girl Drummer' introduces a countryish slide guitar to go along with more prominent drumming and an unexpected transition from acoustic to electric guitars, and it ends up being something of a default single here - a song that lends itself to everyday listening rather than lonely Saturday nights sunken into the couch cushions. The penultimate 'All I Need' finds itself in a similar boat, floating atop an elevated tempo and gorgeous synth-washed guitars. Still, it's fair to note that these more sprightly offerings wouldn't succeed to the extent that they do without all of the ponderous and introspective workings that surround them; it's a symbiotic relationship by which both styles benefit. Jackson understands this, and Ninjutsu
is better for it.
There's a cyclical feel - or at least a sense of thematic resolution - when the seven minute curtain-call 'Okay Sea' washes in, returning to the ebbing and flowing beats of the opener. It's another plaintive piece, sliding in one last heartbroken lyric with "turns out love is hard to erase" before fading to the song's title repeated at length (which speculatively doubles as the name of a woman - oh Kacey), and Ninjutsu
concludes with a sense of longing. This is the sort of experience that unravels a little further with every listen, imparting its emotions on listeners in a way that is welcoming and purely honest. Ninjutsu
exists as a mere acquaintance during that first spin, but it will continue to bare its heart and soul until that relationship evolves into a best friendship. That's the sort of growth you can't rush, but this album is well worth the wait.