Americana literary songsmith Karen Jonas’s sixth LP, The Restless (out Mar. 3), is a dark alt-country exploration of vulnerability. Each song is a confession that lands somewhere between nostalgia and doom. This mix of playful longing and earnest heartbreak crescendos into B-side opener “Rock the Boat,” which leaves Jonas prepared to walk straight into a river. The Restless is a visceral experience: you can feel the “lace and velvet” and taste “the bite of bourbon” on your lover’s tongue.
“The record tells a story, but it isn’t linear,” Jonas says. “There are throughlines: this collection of dreamy, raw, romantic, and ill-fated stories. It’s important to me that the songs don’t judge the stories, they just dig in, leaving you to draw your own conclusions.”
Album opener “Paris Breeze” sets the tone with a mysterious tryst in a Parisian hotel: “it grows suffocating here with you near enough to touch me in the bedsheets / we’re breathing lavender and jasmine and the dust that’s fallen off of some great painting.” There’s desire in the magic of the city, and throughout the record.
The Restless invites us into a new world with each song, weaving between cursed magic and the throes of star-crossed love. Delightfully twangy, “The Breakdown” finds Jonas in a grocery store, in the midst of an inconvenient infatuation. Jonas croons, “this morning out shopping I saw your ex-wife / but I’m not even sure what she looks like / so just to be careful I hid in the frozen food aisle / and I guess I don’t know how you left it with her / but I assume you went through with the divorce / now she’s buying waffles and I’m looking for dessert.”
Provocative piano rocker “Lay Me Down” invites us into an intimate moment. Over wailing guitar solos, Jonas chooses love despite her awareness of what’s to come: “This isn’t gonna be a casual romance,” Jonas sings, “it’s gonna be heartbreak / but maybe lay me down / oh baby / see what I can take / I’m just a little nervous to love you / but I want to anyway.”
With “Elegantly Wasted” she’s come up with an intoxicating midnight lullaby, set again in Paris, followed by the foot-tapping, honky tonk wit of “That’s Not My Dream Couch.” Adorable and with a gauzy echo, “Forever” should be the first dance at every wedding this year or added to the next playlist you send to your lover.
There’s a brazenness to key track “Rock the Boat,” haunted by sound fog and tumultuous percussion. Its snarling drama feels as reckless as an old murder ballad, but it’s more slogging than a shootout. “Sometimes it’s hard to unpack where the narrator and I begin and end,” Jonas reflects.
There is a deceptively upbeat melody in “Drunken Dreamer,” written in the aftermath of Justin Townes Earle’s death, a sympathetic song that continues Jonas’s theme of doomed dreamers. The breathless “We Could Be Lovers” combines Joni Mitchell’s charm with Al Green levels of sensuality.
The late-night country dobro and snap of “Throw Me To The Wolves” brings closure and acceptance as the last official track of the record. “So throw me to the wolves then / go find someone new / the stars always said / I wasn’t meant for you,” Jonas sings.
Together with her band – the core being long-time guitarist and musical partner Tim Bray, bassist and co-producer Seth Morrissey, drummer Seth Brown, plus multi-instrumentalist Jay Starling – Jonas set out to create a sound that was more dense, organic, and layered than her previous records. They worked at Cue Recording Studios in Falls Church, Virginia across almost eight months while continuing to play a grueling schedule of live shows, including their first European tour.
“I’m glad we took our time on this record,” says Jonas “I needed to listen and reflect. Last year I wrote a book of poems called Gumballs with the help of my best friend, editor and lyrical co-writer Andie Burke. It was cathartic and confessional, and I wanted to bring that energy to this album. Andie, Seth Morrissey and I worked as a team to get comfortable with these stories and bring them to life.”
Jonas’s fate was determined when her father played Joni Mitchell’s Miles of Aisles at her childhood home in Damascus, Maryland. “I was 16. I remember sitting next to the turntable and thinking, ‘I don’t really know what she’s doing, but whatever it is, I want to do that.’ I got a guitar and I’ve been trying ever since.” She moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia after graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in English.
Jonas and her band tour non-stop. They were awarded Best Country/Americana artist by the Washington (DC) Area Music Awards three times, featured at SXSW and UK Americanafest, and nominated for an Ameripolitan Award.
This album ends with a bonus: an intimate revisiting of “Lay Me Down.” After the final chord dies, Jonas says, “okay, I’m happy now.” It was said as a throwaway line when leaving the studio, but it feels extremely apt to conclude the seductive and foreboding The Restless with that sentiment of hope.