Last updated on January 6, 2022
I’ve been covering the work of Joshua Aubrey Jackson (Fiery Crash, Summerooms, Make Sure) for the last eight years. His work has gone from alt-folk with a predilection for fuzzed-out guitars to full-fledged twinkly-guitar emo to sophisticated indie-pop. His latest record as Make Sure, Ninjutsu, cements his growing reputation for being an indie-pop songwriter with a keen ear, impressive arranging skills, and an interesting pen. This record is Jackson’s most complex statement yet in every regard.
On Ninjutsu, Jackson shows off a fine-tuned melodic sense. This record is packed with memorable melodies: the line “So here’s the point / when the watchman falls asleep” on “Girl Drummer” could be a throwaway line for many bands, but it becomes an earworm (despite being only sung once) and turning point in the song. “Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say” has a drawn-out chorus that sticks in the mind. “Japanese Bonus Track” has a similarly powerful chorus that evokes Ben Gibbard’s vocal patterns, but also adds memorable verse structures. Yet none of these melodies are theatrical or “poppy”; they are earnest, low-key, and well-turned. They stick not through fast tricks, but through hard work in making good songs.
That intense effort extends to the arrangements: it is clear that an incredible attention to detail went into the instrumentation. Jackson’s warm, wistful vibe is present on every song on the record due to the detailed construction of each instruments’ tone. There are no hard edges on this record: acoustic guitars burble, pad synths enter slowly, percussion rattles without being brittle, and Jackson’s vocals are always just above a sigh. He even manages to make the distorted guitar of “Girl Drummer” thick without being abrasive. The guitars thud appropriately, fitting into the vibe of the record as a moment of great disappointment amid the nostalgic feelings. “Is That You Ninjutsu,” “The Day That I Moved Out,” and “Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say” are particularly deft on this front. “Okay Sea” stretches a mood out over a long period of time (7 minutes!) and gets special notice on that front. It’s truly a beautiful-sounding record, and for the sonics alone it should not be missed.
Yet it’s not all music: the lyrics here are notable. Jackson’s lyricism has always been long on tenderness and wistfulness. On this record, he hones that to a fine point. Opener “Is That You Nunjitsu” draws parallels to the brilliant Transatlanticism, creating a powerful homage/comparison that probably goes under the radar for all but the most dedicated Death Cab fan: the narrator remembers a lost love by finding dog hair in the backseat of a car (instead of the glove box, as on “Title and Registration”); there’s a sea between the narrator and his lost love (“Transatlanticism”), there’s a dinner party going on (perhaps “Death of an Interior Decorator”?). (Also, the guitar tone/melody seems to evoke “Transatlanticism,” but that could be me reading too much here.) From there, Jackson spreads his lyrical wings in a variety of directions. “The Day That I Moved Out” is a nostalgic yet specific rumination on the titular event; “Sometimes a Man Has Nothing to Say” is another rumination on leaving home, but this time it’s about the silence of not knowing how to respond to a lover back home. Switching gears, “Get Moving” is a gentle hymn of praise. The lyrics here are earnest and unadorned, but almost all show a pop of a unique vision: an unusual word, a specific phrase, an unusual tack, a distinctive emphasis.
Make Sure’s Ninjutsu is a polished, beautiful record. It’s the product of many years of learning the craft, and all the bits of effort expended over many years (and many previous releases) show. The melodies shine, the arrangements soar, and the lyrics land. It’s top-shelf indie-pop, the sort of thing that you hear once and want to hear again immediately. It’s fall / winter music (see Jackson’s project Summerooms for the spring / summer music), and I love that about it. Break out your wool sweater and your sonic sweater: Ninjutsu. Highly recommended.