Something that’s so miraculous about Cece Bullards “You’re Looking at Me” its ability to take you places. With every listen, it feels like you’re someplace new but almost familiar. The obvious thing would say it reminds you of the cigarette twinged memories of a downstairs Jazz club, or maybe the old seaside venue with a wonderfully understated band that complimented the sky. Sometimes it reminded me of the intimacy shared when being in someone’s home, not even immediately the bedroom of said person’s house. All of this is before Bullard’s vocals take center stage with her question of “Who had the boys turning hand springs?”
The character she performs is one we know, but maybe not as well as we’d have liked. The sort of ethereal Jazz muse we envision slinked near the grand piano as she pierces through us with her words, but accompanied by an almost hundred-yard stare like she’s trapped in the past. There’s so much to chew on with this song, and that’s even before we get to the chorus. “Who ends up losing the contest? You’re looking at me” she sings, and that’s the first major hint at the subversion on display. Much like Country, Jazz is a sound that has a legacy steeped in tragedy and self-deprecation. It sounds “cool” yes, but often songs are about nostalgia, lost love, these little moments that are hard to duplicate if ever felt again, and you feel that weighted sense with every utterance from Bullard.
I can’t imagine this was an easy song to write. It lays it all bare in a way that even her Jazz forebearers weren’t always able to execute with ease. Bullard is ostensibly playing a role. The kind of world-weary woman we’d see appear as a femme fatale in a Dick Tracy story. You feel her losses, big or small, but when she props herself up with praise you celebrate it. It’s nuanced and complicated and very earnestly human. There’s a joy too that you can sense coming from Bullard like you can hear her smiling behind the mic. This beautiful dance between the music and vocals is undeniably effective. The percussion is simple, but the bass strings feel like heartbeats, and the drums feel like footsteps lost to the times spent that Bullard sings about. The piano twinkles like the sprinkled thoughts she combs over. This is the work of a master songstress who’s not lost a step, even after working with some heavy hitters from Stephen Stills to Jack Jones.
The story told in “You’re Looking at Me” is one of strength through weakness, and by the end of it you can almost feel Bullard as she sheds the past from her body, almost like a snakeskin. It’s a one-of-a-kind listening experience that I can’t recommend enough. There’s no fear that Bullard will “improve” with time. She’s here, she’s made it, she’s proud and loud, yet understated. We’re the ones who are lucky to be her audience. We’re looking at her.
by Bethany Page