The room is quaint, homely, and brown, like one from the 1970s. It may not be the home you actually grew up in, but the room that is featured on the cover of Don’t Let The Kids Win by Julia Jacklin is what you will undeniably think of when you think about a childhood home. This is an album that aims for the personal and most of the time, it hits its mark. If there is a theme that permeates across the entirety of Don’t Let The Kids Win, it is a tone of bittersweet reflection. And I mean that in a very literal sense. In one moment, Jacklin will drop a line of fervent empowering optimism like “I’ll be pushing up that hill until I get what’s mine”, before giving in to a sense of defeated resignation with “I want to give you all of my love/ But I watch you sink as they swam above”. Or how about the chorus of ‘Leadlight’, “I love you my darling I do!” which is immediately juxtaposed with “but I can’t promise I’ll be here to see this whole love through”. This back and forth nature of emotions on Australian singer/songwriter Julia Jacklin’s debut album is one of the album’s defining features, and is one that makes for a sobering and contemplative listen.
Very much the outlier of the album, the bristling ‘Coming of Age’ comes across like a mix of a more focused Courtney Barnett track, a rockier Sharon Van Etten track, and a less overdriven Colleen Green track, and is the most instantly gratifying song on Don’t Let The Kids Win, even as it masks potentially troubling future reflections with blasé vocals and a sing-along chorus. But as I said; ‘Coming of Age’ is an outlier, albeit a welcome one. The majority of album is more low key and sparse. Yes, on paper, this sounds like a stereotypical singer/songwriter’s debut album, and yes, this is very much a lyrics album, but this is by no means a comment on the quality of this thing. Don’t Let The Kids Win is a beautiful album, that will make you drop your guard as you realise how much Julia Jacklin is willing to drop her guard.
Whether it be the subtly menacing ‘Same Airport’ with its sombre tale of lost innocence, or the frightened-child vision that is ‘LA Dream’, in which Jacklin has been left all alone and forgotten at the grocery store, Don’t Let The Kids Win does not shy away from brutal emotions. Luckily however, Jacklin’s earthy instrumentation and comforting singing (that sounds eerily similar to Sharon Van Etten) softens the blow. The twinkling ‘Elizabeth’ is an acoustic ballad that can rightfully be discussed in the same breath as Joni Mitchell. ‘Leadlight’ is charmingly sentimental with just a slice of regret, and ‘Sweet Step’ is an utterly pretty encouragement to “free your mind”. Because she does not hold back and decides to go completely personal, Jacklin can get away with things other singers might not. If it were sung by anyone else, the line “I’m hot, too hot to hold” from the beautifully countrified paean ‘Motherland’, would register as cheesy, trite, and braggadocios. But coming from Jacklin, and within the context of such a gorgeous song, it comes across as a sad, aching line; painting a sorrowful picture of someone who cannot connect with others.
But all of Jacklin’s self reflection and questioning is most perfectly realised on the title track, a fitting conclusion to the album, and a culmination of what makes the album important. With just a voice and a gentle electric strum, Jacklin pours out what seems to be a lifetime’s worth of wisdom into just 4 short minutes. This is INTENSE personal lyricism we are dealing with here. So raw and vivid, that with every word Jacklin sings, you don’t only just picture it, you believe it. I don’t have a sister, but I can’t help but find a lyric like “Don’t let your sister walk down the aisle without pulling her close, saying ‘I love you’, and ‘it’s okay if I don’t see you for a while’” feel so utterly relatable. People will change, people will grow, move away, find other people. You can feel sad, but it’s better to realise that it is all for the best, and greet change with a smile. As Jacklin knowingly breathes, “You’re gonna keep on getting older/it’s gonna keep on feeling strange”. From the tone of the song, it isn’t hard to imagine that Jacklin is singing from the perspective of her future self to her past self, offering her as much helpful advice on life and how to live it as possible. It is this kind of self reflection and self reassessment that we all wish to realise at some point, and few songs enunciate this feeling quite as perfectly and honestly as Julia Jacklin does here.
You may not find yourself completely floored by Don’t Let The Kids Win on a first listen, due to its ever so slightly inconsistent nature and the way the album deceptively slows down very quickly after an uptempo first quarter. But return listens will reveal a tenderness and pathos and that extends beyond boundaries and hits far deeper than you would have ever expected.