An excerpt of Jolie Holland’s “Mexico City,” from 2008′s The Living and the Dead, ended up serving as the epigraph for Jack Kerouac’s “lost” first book The Haunted Life earlier this year. It is an astonishing achievement for an artist who has flown largely under the radar since her 2003 debut LP Catalpa, but it’s hardly a surprise given her staggering talent. Since that brilliantly rough-hewn, Tom Waits-endorsed debut, Holland has covered broad stylistic ground across six uniformly superb LPs, and her newest, Wine Dark Sea, is one of the best she’s ever made.
It’s also, coincidentally, the messiest since her debut. Catalpa was a collection of demos that ended up an official album, but the energy here is organic, spontaneous, and band-oriented, akin to Neil Young’s frayed and underappreciated masterpiece Time Fades Away. Holland undercuts the tough sound with aching vulnerability: Opener “On and On” finds her abjectly pleading “Please be gentle with my heart/ Cause I’m in love with you,” while the woozy, mid-tempo number “Saint Dympha” shows her conflating romantic heartbreak with the deaths of outsider icons. “Most of my heroes died in the gutter — Johnson and Foster, MacTell, and Hurston,” she drawls, before conceding, “I follow them down, and ride with the current that’s pulling me home.” It’s a keenly self-aware sentiment, and indeed, Holland’s never sounded more self-assured then she does in these flashbulb moments of dignified resignation.