None of Us are Free But Some of Us are Brave: Jamila Woods watches her ancestors

legacy legacy

Somewhere in the multiverse, an alternate version of Jamila Woods’ LEGACY! LEGACY! exists in a state of unregenerate corniness, its songs to Zora Neale Hurston and Eartha Kitt taking the form of musical Wikipedia entries or Hamilton-style exposition, its invocation of Miles Davis bedecked with an obligatory trumpet solo, its conjuring of Muddy Waters landing right on the nose with its approximation of the Chess Records sound, its open letter to James Baldwin name-checking Fonny and Tish while cantilating shamelessly from The Fire Next Time. The album as bequeathed to us by our benevolent timeline is many things, but corny ain’t one. True enough: The Chicago singer, poet, and activist names each song here for an oracle– most but not all of them black Americans– but at every turn she resists rote hagiography or biographic recitation. What could have been a mausoleum feels more like a lively dinner party, Woods summoning her ancestors to the table for a cross-generational exchange of lived experience and ancient wisdom. It’s a cloud of witnesses that attests to a full spectrum of black struggle and black pride, and within that framework posits endless revelation concerning strength and vulnerability, identity and legacy, fear of man and love of enemy. As it happens, Woods’ “MILES” doesn’t include a single horn, though it does capture some of the clattering funk and in-the-red heroin intensity of Davis’ bristling 1970s recordings, just as its lyrics (“I’m better than your best”) recall the apocryphal tale of Miles sneering to a record label executive that he could cobble together a band that rocked 10 times harder than The Rolling Stones. Likewise, there is no obvious or literal blues facsimile in “MUDDY,” though it does ripple with crude, speaker-rattling bass and swagger with veneerless shit-talk (“Motherfuckers won’t shut up!” is how the song opens). And “BALDWIN,” the album’s dramatic apex, pairs Nico Segal’s spritely brass with meditations on how fear kills and love frees, codifying a committed discipleship to America’s most consequential chronicler. “My ancestors watch me,” Woods boasts on a song named for the poet Nikki Giovanni, yet it’s just as accurate to say that she’s watching the ancestors, keeping one eye on the counsel of the past and following their lead as she navigates the treacheries of the present.

Maybe the true multiverse is the one Woods carries inside her– the cultural lineage she harbors in her DNA and filters through her own distinct personality. “No one you can name is just that one thing they have shown,” Joe Henry once sang, and throughout LEGACY! LEGACY! Woods proves that she contains irreducible multitudes. “Must be disconcerting how I discombob your mold,” she shrugs on “ZORA,” sidestepping category and classification without breaking a sweat. Elsewhere, she cites the precedent of the ancients as all the authority she needs for endless reinvention. “I’m a fable,” she intones on a spacy meditation for Sun Ra, and in “EARTHA” she adopts a playful sing-song voice to narrate her move from people-pleasing into self-acceptance: “I used to be afraid of myself… now I’m too far grown for your plot.” The album-opening song for Betty Davis bears witness to a woman on the cusp of transformation; what begins as a jazz daydream morphs into cross-talking funk, a musical shorthand for personal rebranding. Even the sound of LEGACY! LEGACY! asserts its identity through plurality; the tracks– mostly from A-Slot, with pinch hits from Odd Couple and Peter Cottontale– form a seamless suite of R&B, consistent in mood but rich in detail, carefully perched between stylish, contemporary beats and the warm, analog allure of classics like Mama’s Gun and Voodoo. The jostling, tough-talking “ZORA” condenses the glitz of an orchestra into its lithe choruses, while “GIOVANNI” parts feathery synth clouds with an explosive electric guitar solo. A late-album song for Octavia Butler coos and rattles with blissed-out keyboard flourishes. The momentum never wanes, and the banger ratio is 100 percent.

The surfaces of the album may glisten, but there’s trauma beneath them– and you don’t have to dig very deep to find it. Like the remarkable Songs of Our Native Daughters record, released earlier this year, Woods’ album lingers long over violence enacted on black bodies, and black women in particular. A song inspired by the poet Sonia Sanchez meditates on the legacy of chattel slavery, and extends the blessing of moral clarity; “it was bad,” Woods summarizes, a verdict that startles in both its simplicity and its weight. From there, a guest rap from Nitty Scott traces scars that have been carried for generation upon generation, and exhorts careful self-inventory: “Do you love yourself? Are you healing your trauma?” It’s not just physical bodies that are plundered, but also bodies of work, and several songs wrestle for a sense of autonomy over creative output. Amidst bleating keyboards and skittering drums, “MILES” pokes a big middle finger in the eye of the minstrel tradition: “In the old country/ you could make me tap dance, shake hands, yes ma’am/ but I’m a free man now,” Woods struts, rattling off her rhymes with crisp enunciation that a lot of rappers would kill for. Meanwhile, the song for Muddy Waters celebrates a blues vernacular so rooted in experience, it can’t be commodified or contained: “They can study my fingers/ they can mirror my pose/ they can talk your good ear off/ oh, what they think they know.”

There’s also a song for artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose work provided the title for the most recent Jon Batiste album; it’s based on an interview where Basquiet was asked to name the source of his anger. He smiled rakishly and refused his interlocutor the satisfaction of an answer. Woods turns it into a study in emotional freedom, an admission that even anger is something that can be hijacked if you’re not quick to claim ownership. Like everything else here, she sings it with an ineffable cool, and a twisty guest verse from theMIND simmers but never boils, Slot-A building percolating funk through call-and-response vocals and fleet cymbal work. LEGACY! LEGACY! calls injustice for what it is but never quite rages, choosing positivity not so much out of high-mindedness but rather as an instinct for survival (“fear ain’t no way to live,” reads one morsel of ancient wisdom). “SUN RA” imagines simply ceding the planet to evildoers and staking a new world somewhere in the cosmos– it’s sort of the flipside to A Tribe Called Quest’s “The Space Program”– while “ZORA” locates the righteous value in being the bigger person; “My weaponry is my energy/ I tenderly fill my enemies with white light,” Woods affirms. And in “BALDWIN,” hate is too great a burden to bear; “My friend James says I should love you anyway,” Woods sings, the brass band swelling behind her in solidarity. Bolstered by the ancestors, Woods emboldened to walk through dark days speaking her truth, abiding her multitudes, extending charity even to those who only wish her violence. “None of us are free but some of us are brave,” she sings in “ZORA”– taking her place in a long lineage of courage.

Cloud of Witnesses: Brad Mehldau searches the Scriptures

Finding gabriel

When something’s broken, it’s always wise to check the manual. That’s what the jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau does on his new Finding Gabriel, an album born of grief and confusion over crumbling institutions, shattered societal guardrails, and the prevailing sense of things falling apart. Trying to make some sense of these beleaguered times, Mehldau searched the Scriptures. “Finding Gabriel came after reading the Bible closely for the last several years,” he explains. “The prophetic writing of Daniel and Hosea resonated in particular, as well as the wisdom literature of Job and Ecclesiastes, and the devotional words of Psalms. The Bible felt like a corollary and perhaps a guide to the present day—one long nightmare or a signpost leading to potential gnosis, depending on how you read it.” So the album is a Bible study, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. There’s no attempt here to summarize Judeo-Christian dogma; instead, Mehldau preserves the voice of the Bible as a library of human experience– the collected testimonies of migrants, asylum seekers, wayfaring strangers, and prophetic voices pleading for the Kingdom to come. It’s an album about life amidst chaos, and if it doesn’t settle on any answers, it upholds the search itself as something holy in its own right; something that binds us with the great cloud of witnesses from the past.

Mehldau’s immersion in ancient wisdom is well-annotated, the liner notes appending a textual citation to each of its 10 songs. Not that you necessarily need them: Even the biblical novice will register “Born to Trouble,” which juxtaposes the deep blue of Mehldau’s piano against the antiseptic indifference of an analog synthesizer, as a meditation on the plight of Job; “Striving After the Wind,” which chases vanities through a haze of loops and squelches, as a repartee with the Teacher from Ecclesiastes. Even so, anyone who plans attendance in Mehldau’s Bible study will want to do the readings in advance. You might even supplement with Jesus’ words from John 10:27 (Mehldau’s citations keep it Old Testament, but there’s no reason we should stick to such arbitrary dispensations): “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Or this, from Psalm 55: “I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice.” The ancient wisdom posits time and again that voice is a connection point between humanity and the divine, and Mehldau seems to grasp the theological weight of that on Finding Gabriel, a largely lyric-less album that’s bedecked with a host of vocalizing witness-bearers. When those voices do congeal around actual words, they tend to be faint expressions of need; one song opens with a slow and bleary exhalation, then Mehldau’s simple request to “make it all go away”– a crude prayer language, perhaps, but as relatable as any Psalm. Much more often, voices unite in wordless supplication: They appear in “The Garden” one after another, like so many stars appearing in the night sky, cooing and moaning as the song’s weariness builds toward ascent. Just as the sheep know the call of their shepherd, you’ll know from the timber of these voices that they are searchers and seekers, lifting up holy groanings even when intellect and vocabulary fail them.

The voices that swoop and dive through these soundscapes– not unlike the unruly choirs that add vocal ballast to Kamasi Washington’s records– include such luminaries as Kurt Elling, Becca Stevens, and Gabriel Kahane. You’ll hear Mehldau himself speak up a time or two, but even when he’s not at the mic, the whole of Finding Gabriel bears his unmistakable voicings. Mehldau is justly celebrated for his brainy, deeply conceptual solo recordings (After Bach, 10 Years Solo Live) as well as records that expand the lexicon of the traditional jazz trio (Seymour Reads the Constitution!), but Finding Gabriel feels closer to Largo or Highway Rider— albums that required a broader palette to capture the eccentric colors of his imagination. It’s an expansive record that consolidates much of what Mehldau’s done before but also carries the thrill of experiment and discovery: “The Garden” opens with a narcotic keyboard haze learned from his beloved Radiohead, its gauzy reverie ultimately blasted open with righteous skronk and howl from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and breakneck drumming from Mark Guiliana. “Proverb of Ash” captures the meditative feel of Mehldau’s solo piano recordings, only here he accompanies himself on synths and drum loops, the result a wonderfully rickety one-man-band groove. “O Ephraim” is an elegiac cycle that thrums with anticipation, while “St. Mark is Howling in the City of Night” teeters from an arena-rock backbeat into the delicate swell of voices and strings. The animating tension in all of this is between Mehldau’s usual intellectual robustness and his willingness to negotiate new sounds and textures; you can tell that there’s concrete ideological scaffolding holding all of this together, yet much of the album is played on keyboards and synthesizers that were new to Mehldau, keeping these performances just slightly off-kilter and exploratory.

The voices themselves are what make the greatest impression, yet they’re subsumed by the voice you hear on “The Prophet is a Fool,” a composition so formally audacious and thematically brash that it casts a shadow over everything else on Finding Gabriel. Here, Mehldau rolls the tape from a political rally, including the voice of the 45th President of the United States inciting his acolytes into fear-mongering isolationism. Mehldau himself verbalizes blunt commentary. It’s unsubtle, but perhaps Mehldau would tell you that it’s pitched at just the right frequency for a brutish age. And maybe there’s more to it than it first seems. With the rally scene, the pianist provides us with a study in discipleship– a reminder that we all have voices to whom we’re accountable, whether they’re heads of state or simply ragged figures testifying in the desert, ratifying the prophets who came before them. Either way, sheep always recognize the sound of their shepherd. The Bible tells us so; Brad Mehldau bears witness.

By the Grace of Your Strength: Redemption songs from Our Native Daughters

ournativedaughters

You might not expect there to be any dance tunes on Songs of Our Native Daughters. This is, after all, an album released on Smithsonian Folkways, an imprint famous for its scholasticism. It’s named in homage to a James Baldwin collection. Its liner notes contain assiduous footnotes and recommendations for further reading. The songs– all 13 of them– trace the long tendrils of the African slave trade; give names to the skeletons that still rattle in our closets; linger long over violence enacted on the bodies of black women. It is unflinching; demanding, even. And yet, less than four minutes in, there it is: “Moon Meets the Sun,” featherweight and buoyant in its gossamer banjo rhythms, an airy mbaqanga dusted in American ash and clay. It almost sounds impossible, and it’s not even the only dance tune on the record: A late-album highlight called “Music and Joy,” creates wide grooves through sparkling polyrhythms, offering just what its title advertises. So if you read the album’s elevator pitch and want to psych yourself out of it– if you assume its achievement is academic, that it’s a righteous and necessary album but ultimately a harrowing listen– don’t. Lean in and you’ll discover a record that’s musically deep and robust; songs that ask us to sit with atrocities but not to settle for them. Remarkably, Songs of Our Native Daughters is both unsparing in its witness-bearing and uncompromising in its sweep of redemption. “We smile to the sky/ We move to stay alive/ And we’re dancing,” one song beams; this music is based in scholarship but enlivened by the resolution to wring joy from desolation; to mine the unthinkable for wisdom and light.

It’s no surprise that a project like this would spring from the mind of Rhiannon Giddens– celebrated folklorist, deep conceptual thinker, minister of neighborliness, curator of what she dubs “black girl banjo magic.” There’s plenty of that here thanks to the convening of blues conjurer Amythyst Kiah, borderless folk visionary Leyla McCalla, and luminous Bird of Chicago Allison Russell, all of them writing, singing, and playing multiple instruments. Even the assemblage of this group, like the summoning of The Avengers, feels momentous; a reclamation of folk forms often supposed to be indigenous to white, rural America but actually rooted in the African diaspora, nurtured and sustained by generations of women. Songs of Our Native Daughters is that secret history writ large, manifest through songs that accommodate both the highlife rumble of “Music and Joy” but also the sawing fiddles of “Polly Ann’s Hammer,” the sinewy blues of “Black Myself,” the  prickly bluegrass of “I Knew I Could Fly.” It’s a history that’s been carried through suffering and physical trauma– through “blood and bones,” as one song puts it– and these women honor that history through narratives that never hold back or evade specificity. Many of the receipts of chattel slavery are aired here, including reckonings with the plundering of bodies, the theft of children, the crack of whips, the corruption of Christianity into slaveholder religion, and economic devastation that festers still. Giddens unpacks the economics most explicitly in her spoken word piece “Barbados,” where slavery is condemned as a moral affront but then accommodated as a capitalistic necessity. It’s a song that chases the intellectual seed of racism and injustice, but other songs are purely visceral; “Mama’s Cryin’ Long,” a tour of violence wrought upon black women, is set to hand claps and thumping percussion, each one landing with a bruise. “Slave Driver,” sinister and traumatized, charts slavery’s warped genealogy, naming illiteracy and poverty as its spiritual children. “Moon Meets the Sun” locates the moral authority that slaveholder religion abandoned: “May the god that you gave us/ forgive you your trespasses.”

These are songs of integrity, historic precision, and moral clarity; they’re not written to make anyone feel better. And yet those very qualities are what make the album’s redemptive work so astonishing and so believable. It would be grace enough to hear these women channel suffering into “music and joy,” or to hear how “Moon Meets the Sun” traces back a long lineage of perseverance and strength (“we’ll survive this” may be the record’s single most stirring example of plainspoken resilience). Kiah supplies the pluck in “Black Myself,” which posits defiant self-respect as its own form of ancient wisdom (“I don’t creep around/ I stand proud and free”). But it’s Russell who’s ablest to turn sorrow into gladness. She sings the album-closing “You’re Not Alone,” which cries out to be performed by Mavis Staples and which summons the witness of the ancestors as a deep reservoir of courage (“All the ones that came before you/ their strength is yours now”). And in “Quasheba, Quasheba,” she tells the story of a distant grandmother who was captured in Ghana and sold into slavery in Grenada. Russell acknowledges a loss that’s incalculable but finds within it a fountainhead of hope; it was through Quasheba’s tenacity and survival that an entire family line blossomed. “By the grace of your strength we have life,” Russell sings, her voice just one of the multitude of blessings that sprung from Quasheba’s resilience. Over and over, Songs of Our Native Daughters tells the stories of women’s bodies being wrested into instruments of commerce, transmuted into crops and into gold– but Russell reframes the narrative. In her telling, a woman’s life is the seed for generations to come, a family tree that stretches on. It’s a song Quasheba’s captors never could have intended.

(Incidentally, the folds of the Rhiannon Giddens Extended Universe include not just Songs of Our Native Daughters and Giddens’ bridge-building collaboration with Francesco Turrisi, but also a recent solo album from McCalla, titled The Capitalist Blues. In it, the Haitian-American singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist creates a jostling and anachronistic vision of her New Orleans home, one that hums with humor, empathy, and pan-cultural imagination. The title song, a vaudevillian shuffle set to old-timey banjo strumming, surveys the wreckage of late stage consumer capitalism; “Aleppo,” a distorted punk-blues, surveys the wreckage of falling bombs. By no means are the two songs unrelated. Listen to this album and then chase it with a repeat of Giddens’ “Barbados” if you really want to feel the capitalist blues.)

Disavow the Gold Rush: Vampire Weekend through the eye of a needle

father of the bride

It’s hard to talk about Vampire Weekend without also discussing privilege. To be fair, they’ve largely brought it on themselves. It’s been more than a decade since the release of their first album, but you can probably still remember the uniform of their earliest iteration; to this day, no critic can mention them without also referencing the polo shirts and the boat shoes. And if you remember that then you might also remember a song called “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” its title borrowing the language of Congolese dance music while also betraying the band’s upper-class roots. There is a certain audacity to how this Ivy League indie guitar band with a white male singer has routinely pilfered from the African continent– a certain cultural immunity, even– but it’s to the enormous credit of Vampire-in-Chief Ezra Koenig that he’s generally handled his privilege responsibly. That’s never been truer than on the long-gestating fourth Vampire Weekend album, Father of the Bride, which finds Koenig litigating that privilege ruthlessly, both through drollery (he had to have known what we’d say about a Vampire Weekend song called “Unbearably White”) and through jaundiced melancholy. Surely it is telling that the song on which the whole album seems to hang is one about forsaking wealth. “Married in the Gold Rush,” a Grand Ole Opry-styled duet with Danielle Haim, is a song about a union consummated in prosperity but destined to ruin. “We got married in the gold rush/ And the sight of gold will always bring me pain,” Haim confesses. But what’s really telling is that, on an album where the dominant mood is a kind of millennial malaise, a sad sack aloofness, it’s in this song that Koenig seems surest about how to move forward toward something like peace and contentment. “Time to disavow the gold rush,” he sings, “and the bitterness that’s flourished in its wake.” It sounds like a plan.

That song is preceded by one called “Rich Man,” which might put you in the headspace of Jesus of Nazareth and a certain young ruler. Here, Koenig alleges that he’s perhaps the only wealthy man on the planet whose treasures have brought real satisfaction. Maybe he’s telling the truth, but he certainly doesn’t sound happy on Father of the Bride, where nearly every one of the 18 songs weds major chords and a jubilant gait to lyrics laced with strychnine despair. Koenig sings here of crumbling institutions, broken covenants, and shattered faith; he sounds like a man who’s blessed but isn’t content, well-off but absent peace of mind. He may have been “born before the gold rush,” but what does it profit a man? When we encounter him on Father of the Bride, he’s sulking in the corner on his own wedding day (“crying in those rumpled sheets like someone’s ‘bout to die,” Haim appraises), bemoaning “this life and all its suffering,” apologizing to a forbearing partner for all his hand-wringing introspection (“all I did was waste your time”), and looking back ruefully on his gilded matrimony (“those wedding bells were ringing out our fate”). Maybe he’s more like that rich man from the Bible than he lets on; maybe he sounds so miserable here because he’s straining to squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Trouble on the inside spills over to trouble on the outside, and while Koenig tries to find some direction in his one wild and precious life he witnesses the slow collapse of his one wild and precious world. It’s the same world emblazoned on the album cover in glorious ClipArt chic; Mother Earth.bmp, Lindsay Zoladz calls it. And it’s the same world he laments in one song after another about ecological apocalypse. “Big Blue, for once in my life, I felt close to you,” he coos in “Big Blue,” a lover’s hymn for a dying world, voiced by a faithless paramour who’s come around too little, too late.  And in the following “How Long?”– even its title suggesting a psalm of lament– Koenig has his eye on the rapidly-rising sea levels; there’s no question as to whether we’re all drowning, there’s just the question of when. Meanwhile, “Harmony Hall” spies a serpent slinking through holy and consecrated spaces– the halls of power, God’s misty-wet garden, or whatever other hallowed place once thought incorruptible. In this context, maybe his boast about being a rich man with a satisfied mind isn’t a sign of contentment so much as callousness. You’ll notice that, amidst the clang and pep of “Bambina,” Koenig all but admits he won’t stick around when the shit hits the fan. “My Christian heart cannot withstand/ The thundering arena/ I’ll see you when the violence ends,” he addresses his lover, apologetic and shuffling for the nearest exit. The song’s animating emotion is a kind of pre-emptive survivor’s guilt. To know that, when the crisis comes, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who is spared the worst of it… what could be more privileged than that?

There’s another sense in which Koenig has always handled his privilege with care: Situated on the long historic continuum of white dudes appropriating African tropes and conventions, each Vampire Weekend album has tilted graciously toward respectful footnoting and generous contextualization. The man who brazenly titles his song “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” isn’t out to plunder; maybe to provoke, possibly even to troll, but mostly to draw connections and set the table for a more inclusive conversation. That conversation continues on “Rich Man,” which puts a properly-credited sample of the African guitarist S.E. Rogie into dialogue with American country and blues idioms. Koenig’s interrogation of privilege also leads him into more domestic pilfering than he’s ever done before, mining the fertile veins of dad rock in the same way previous albums sought inspiration on other continents. Included in this pan-cultural milieu are songwriting structures on loan from the Country Music Hall of Fame; African flourishes learned from Graceland; immaculate guitar tones snagged from Dave Edmunds, jittery funk absorbed from David Byrne; in “This Life,” the very same bounce Van Morrison conjured for “Brown Eyed Girl,” long a staple of oldies radio and middle school dances.

Such a bounty of sounds and influences suggests something of the Spotifycore ethos, a concentrated eclecticism that lends itself equally well to deep immersion or casual play, here funneled through the sprawl of a classic double-album structure. By all means, draw parallels to the venerated twofer of your choice– to the whiplash collisions of The Beatles, the globetrotting roots music of London Calling— but the most valuable antecedent of all may be Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Like that album, Father of the Bride feels a bit like the outpouring of a mad genius whose perfectionist studiocraft can seem insular at first, but gradually opens itself up and provides countless details worthy of obsession. (The magisterial acoustic guitar figure that undergirds “Harmony Hall”? You can play it on an infinite loop!) There’s even a nod to Lindsey Buckingham’s punchdrunk drumlines in the brassy pomp and circumstance of “We Belong Together,” the only Father of the Bride track with credits for departed Vampire Rostam Batmanglij. Indeed, Vampire Weekend has never sounded less like a band and more like a Koenig solo venture, fleshed out by a revolving cast of supporting players who include everyone from Haim to a barely-discernible Jenny Lewis. Just listen to opener “Hold You Now,” where the song’s gestures toward country-music naturalism are disrupted by a sampled gospel choir, or to the Vocoder-warped cha-cha-cha in “Spring Snow,” and you’ll hear how Father of the Bride’s pleasures emanate from one-man-band studio impressionism more than they do the pretense of live performance. True to the double album spirit, some of the most rewarding moments are the most off-script ones, suggesting rabbit trails Koenig and Co. might circle back to on album #5; in “My Mistake,” the lone song here that doesn’t sound light and breezy, Koenig croons like a jazz singer and mopes like Thom Yorke; in a couple of jams with Steve Lacy, he gets noodly and winsomely weird; in “Sympathy,” he orchestrates a rowdy, speaker-rattling flamenco.

The scaffolding that holds all of it in place is a trilogy of he-said, she-said numbers with Haim– call them scenes from a marriage. The marriage trifecta begins with “Hold You Now,” where the chapel bells are ringing but Koenig’s worried mind is cluttered with second-guesses and what-ifs. In “Married in the Gold Rush,” he’s ready to disavow affluence but keep his bride by his side. And in “We Belong Together,” husband and wife realize that, for all Koenig’s jitters, their mismatched matrimony actually makes a lot of sense; he’s only sorry he’s wasted so much of her time with his anxieties. It would be a tidy end to the story were there not three songs left on the album, culminating with the hymn-like austerity of “Jerusalem, New York, and Berlin,” where Koenig’s back to second-guessing, lamenting the “wicked world” just outside his window. It’s an unsettled conclusion to the record, and maybe that’s the point: The quest for contentment may redeem “this life and all its suffering,” but it’s not going to cure it– and to ever feel fully at home here is a privilege none of us are meant to know.

Out of Orbit: The unquietable mind of Bruce Hornsby

absolute zero

Who could have imagined, when “The Way it Is” first conquered the airwaves, that Bruce Hornsby would become known not primarily for his supple soft rock, nor his nimble piano work, nor even his easeful way with melody– but rather for his restless, unquietable mind? By Hornsby’s own admission, the success of that song was just a happy accident, no one more surprised by it than he; as Stephen Thomas Erlewine notes, he seemed to abandon pop celebrity the very instant he attained it, and since then he’s flitted from film scores to bluegrass to a stint with the Dead. Wanderlust is his guiding principle, the connective tissue for his body of work, and by this point there’s no justifiable reason to be thrown by his latest flights of fancy; after all, what’s one more rabbit hole from a man so prone to discursion? Take Absolute Zero, a new album that combines the filigree of classical music with the exploratory spirit of jazz, its songs inspired by Hornsby’s fondness for avant composers but also his readings in astrophysics, anthropology, literature, and history. Yes, it sounds like it’s from out of left field; but then, that’s long been Hornsby’s sweet spot.

That’s not to say the album is easily explained. Largely acoustic, Absolute Zero centers on Hornsby’s playing, which moves fluidly from flurried pointillism to plainspoken balladeering, from jostling polytonalities to elegantly rumbling funk. He’s surrounded variously by the thrum of woodwinds, the swell of an orchestra, and the disembodied gurgling of electronics; by the loose-limbed chamber sextet yMusic, long-serving giant of jazz Jack DeJohnette, and whippersnappers like Justin Vernon and Blake Mills, both of whom uphold Hornsby’s restlessness as license for their own unclassifiability. You can call this album many things– brainy, intricate, digressive– but one thing is never is is abstruse. Hornsby may have little interest in pop stardom but he has a keen interest in writing songs that are direct and emotionally available; it’s that instinct, coupled with the complexity of his musical ideas, that make Absolute Zero frictive, surprising, and alluring. On song after song, abstraction is settled into accessibility, complexity resolved into viscerality: Listen to how “Fractals” opens with a clutch of fluttering, syncopated notes from Hornsby’s piano, hovering over the shape of a melody and then suddenly congealing around the entrance of a rigid backbeat; in an instant, the song’s delicacy gives way to ruthless locomotion. You can hear the same kind of streamlined knottiness on “Absolute Zero,” where Hornsby’s piano ponderings are stitched together by the slip ‘n’ slide of DeJohnette’s cymbal work. On “Voyager One,” the band hurtles through the cosmos, woodwinds twinkling like stars in the vista, combustible low end providing the rocket fuel. (“[A] multidimensional hoedown,” Jon Pareles calls it.)

In a canon that’s full of passion projects and labors of love, Absolute Zero is both one of the boldest excursions yet but also one of Hornsby’s cleverest consolidations. Indeed, you could say that this is the nexus to which all his discursions have led. The lessons he’s learned in the movies come to bear in “The Blinding Light of Dreams,” a dizzying high-wire chase scene, tension masterfully sustained by the taut push and pull of the orchestra. And you can hear his affection for familiar structures and forms on “Never in This House,” a domestic diorama that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Costello & Bacharach collaboration. “Ecolocation” is only the clearest evidence here of Hornsby’s fondness for Appalachian vernaculars, a shambling jalopy of a blues number. And “Meds,” a collaboration with Mills and Vernon, illustrates the adaptability of his heartland roots: Listen to how it scales from the unsteady plunking of his piano to the kind of big, arena-swelling chorus his label undoubtedly hoped for in the wake of “The Way it Is” and “Mandolin Rain.” And don’t miss the scrape of the string section, imbuing just the right sense of wobbly unease into the song’s frayed edges.

Hornsby’s intellectual appetite is born out not just in his musical ideas but in his poetic conceits: He draws here from so many systems of inquiry that the album is practically a self-contained liberal arts education. But if he’s engaging with different kinds of analytic thought, he’s doing so as a way into the abstract and the imaginative; he’s less interested in the empirical than in the ineffable, so when he compares a relationship to geometric formations (“Fractals”), it’s not because he’s trying to quantify or explain love so much as to articulate its mystery. His interest in science sometimes spills into the speculative, as in the title song, where cryogenic freezing is posited as the best shot at redemption (“Another chance, it may be better this time,” he hopes). Other songs abide the plurality of complex emotions: “Cast-Off,” full of gauzy synths and spectral murmerings from Vernon, grapples for gratitude in the face of rejection; “White Noise,” based on the writings of David Foster Wallace, considers the deadening effects of chronic boredom. Hornsby is also drawn to historical narratives, both personal and cultural, here employed as frameworks for exploring moral formation and evolution: “Never in This House” chronicles the hobbling effects of a dysfunctional family life and longs to break the cycle, while “The Blinding Light of Dreams” CliffsNotes the history of racism in the American South, name-dropping Jim Crow and Harper Lee along the way. As skeletons rattle in the closet, Hornsby turns his attention to space travel: “Travelling to distant suns may be mankind’s only hope,” he sighs. It’s a thread that connects the song to “Voyager One,” where Hornby exhorts: “Let’s break out of our orbits, free of gravity’s effect/ Let’s leave our little planet, fix relationships we’ve wrecked/ Un-learn all our habits, make sure we all connect.” He’s taking an interstellar view of radical neighborliness, the space program his vessel for increased moral bandwidth and empathy. But he’s also dropping some clues as to what Absolute Zero’s all about: Through these works of imagination, Hornsby’s drawing connections between musical idioms and scholastic disciplines; he’s drawing an ever-widening circle around the orbit of human experience.

So Much Wrong Goin’ On: P!nk’s human condition

hurts2bhuman

Almost 20 years into her recording career, P!nk may have just now provided us the Rosetta Stone to her life’s work. In a song called “My Attic,” from her flinty and soul-searching album Hurts 2B Human, one of pop’s great survivors describes the inner sanctum where all her most closely-held secrets are kept behind lock and key: Internalized trauma, suppressed shame, creeping anxiety, unspoken confessions left to gather cobweb and dust. At the song’s start, P!nk cautions a lover against spelunking through all this accrued shit, but by its end, she’s cautiously optimistic that just maybe she’s found someone who loves her for her whole being– someone who can sort through the clutter in her attic without getting scared away. It’s a perspicuous metaphor for the harrowing nature of intimacy; how entanglement with another person can be liberating and terrifying at the same time.

This cocktail of trepidation and candor is a familiar theme in  P!nk’s songbook: As devotees know, she’s been granting us little glimpses into her attic since the beginning, and with each album she seems willing to open the scuttle just a little wider. When her first record came out in 2000, she was lazily lumped in with the teen pop crowd– she was 21 at the time– but by the release of M!ssundaztood she’d carved out a niche as the guardian and godmother of misfits and outcasts; she nurtured a community of Little Monsters long before Lady Gaga gave them their name. Since then, she’s weathered adulthood more gracefully than any of her contemporaries, and she’s focused her ministry among the m!ssundaztood by chronicling her personal crises with increased openness and heightened specificity. Funhouse was a divorce album; The Truth About Love a reckoning with the high cost of commitment; Beautiful Trauma a weary redemption of deep-rooted pain. Each of these albums smuggle confessional writing into glinting pop constructs, and taken as a body of work they signify a pop star who’s largely unequalled at projecting strength and badassery while remaining lucid about all the hurt she struggles to let go of; all the attic junk she’s hoarded that now crowds contentment out of her periphery.

If Hurts 2B Human doesn’t immediately stand out as a capstone or career-defining masterpiece– it’s another fine album in a catalog absent an indisputable peak–  it may well be the most intentional album P!nk’s ever made about finding peace amidst pain; the fullest flourishing yet of her tough-but-vulnerable style. These 13 songs amount to a personal inventory of all the ugly garbage she’s tried to shove into storage, here dragged into the light for a frank mental health evaluation. Of course some of the voices in her head are ghosts from past relationships; in “90 Days” she duets with Wrabel and channels anguish through the haze and swirl of Autotune, reasoning that a stint in rehab could help her kick drugs or drinking but there’s no place to go when you need to kick a broken heart. In “Happy,” she sounds like she’s using the tools she developed in therapy, confessing to issues with body image, pining for pharmaceutical intervention, psychoanalyzing herself, and landing on the breakthrough revelation that she’s “just scared to be happy.” The therapeutic modality continues in “Courage,” about finding the resolve to make healthier choices when there’s greater comfort in familiar dysfunctions. And “Can We Pretend” takes to the dancefloor for catharsis and escape, a temporary detox from a life of worry and beleaguerment. “Can we pretend that we both like the President?” P!nk chuckles, one of a couple of references here to how cultural and political dislocation can bleed into inward despair. (“There’s so much goin’ wrong outside,” she confesses on “Walk Me Home,” sounding battered but not defeated.) Like Sara Bareilles’ elegant Amidst the Chaos, Hurts 2B Human feels marinated in perilous times; political tumult isn’t the subject, but it is the point of view.

P!nk’s graceful maturation is born out not just in the level-headedness of her mental health inventory, but in the music itself. Nobody makes record like she does, albums that are hip without ever feeling desperate, but also old-fashioned without being stodgy or staid. Though she’s sanded down some of the rough edges from her earliest music in favor of smoother pop textures, she remains anchored in the arena-swelling structures of rock: In “We Could Have it All,” written with her old pal Beck, she sings over an electric pulse and a pouding chorus, post-morteming a relationship that crumbled despite all the odds being stacked in its favor. (“There were no black cats in our path,” she sighs; sometimes the only explanation is that things fall apart.) And in “Walk Me Home,” written with her old pal Nate Ruess of .fun, she demonstrates the ease with which she navigates humanistic anthems, a bit of The Lumineers’ big-footed stomp thrown in for good measure. But she’s never more comfortably in throwback mode than she is when finessing ballads, whether sleek and steely (“90 Days”), string-swept (“My Attic”), or cracked and frayed (the raw acoustic closer, “The Last Song of Your Life”).

P!nk is a classicist but not a dinosaur, and she’s always had smart instincts about how to fold contemporary sounds into her out-of-time constructions. “Can We Pretend,” featuring Cash Cash, channels EDM glitter into contoured AAA pop, while the lithesome opener “Hustle” bristles with horns, sound effects, casual defiance, and cheerful profanity. She brings in king-o’-Americana Chris Stapleton for “Love Me Anyway,” adding some rough and tumble to one of her most doleful weepers. All of these subtle metamorphoses ultimately end up sounding like P!nk, an artist omnivorous enough to stretch herself but self-sure enough to never make it sound like a reach. One of her most dexterous stretches here is in “Hurts 2B Human,” a wounded ballad tricked out with an electo-stutter and a low-key vocal assist from Khalid. Here P!nk sings of human fracture not as a symptom to be cured but a chronic condition to be managed; for close to 20 years now, she’s been showing us how.

Beyond Boundaries: The radical neighborliness of Rhiannon Giddens

thereisnoother

There’s a righteous word for the third Rhiannon Giddens album, made available to us by the Anglican priest Oliver O’Donovan. Litigating the ethical demands of Jesus Christ, O’Donovan writes, “Xenophilia has been commanded us: the neighbor whom we are to love is the foreigner whom we encounter on the road.” That same spirit of xenophilia emanates from there is no Other, nothing if not an exercise in radical neighborliness. Your first clue is the album title (including its stylized capitalization), a declarative statement with an attending moral imperative: Giddens conceived the album as a rebuke to othering, which tells us to fear the sidelined Samaritan, the wayfaring stranger, the alien and the immigrant in our midst; to apprehend their humanity as discrete from our own, if indeed we acknowledge it at all. Xenophilia offers no quarter for such separations, requiring not just that we affirm humanity when we see it but that we actively seek ways to esteem it. It asks us to maximize our moral bandwidth, perceiving every person we encounter as a neighbor to be welcomed and embraced. That’s a tall order, but Giddens’ album rises to the occasion, never preaching its point but proving it both formally and aesthetically. There is no Other amounts to an oral history of the cosmic neighborhood we share together, pieced together from porous and borderless folk traditions, sounds and cultures that bleed into one another, roots that run deep and in perpetual entanglement.  These songs come from street corners and mountain hollers, from juke joints and royal opera halls. They revel in the overlap of regional vernaculars, standing in defiance of taxonomy and hierarchy. They offer a multitude of ancient and not-so-ancient witnesses, attesting to the interconnectedness of human experience.

Giddens made the record with Italian virtuoso Francesco Turrisi, whose piano, accordion, and hand percussion accompany her array of stringed instruments; on four songs, they are joined by Kate Ellis on cello and viola. There are historic links between the folk instruments employed, and deep connections between the American and Mediterranean idioms they articulate, but you don’t have to be a musicologist to pick up on the spirit of fluidity and cultural cross-pollination; indeed, what’s always made Giddens so effective as a folklorist is that she values ancient texts not for their amber preserve, but for their mutability. “Gonna Write Me a Letter” is an old bluegrass rag, here dominated by Turrisi’s clamorous frame drum; the song’s cast in a low-end rumble that feels closer to the speaker-shaking dynamics of hip-hop than to the high-and-lonesome key of a string band. That same jostling physicality can be heard on “Pizzica di San Vito,” a buoyant dance number performed here with locomotive momentum, Giddens bouncing crisp Italian syllables off one another as Turrisi’s jangling percussion provides rattle and thrum. That’s not the only song that leans on Giddens’ apprenticeship in the opera; she sings everything here with magisterial command and regal phrasing, not least a couple of actual opera tunes. The famous “Black Swan” aria sounds less like a theater piece than a weird backwoods fairy tale, ominous and grim, while “Trees on the Mountain,” from Floyd Carlisle’s Susannah, transmutes the flair of the theater into the dusty plainspeak of folk music. Such boundaryless invention abounds on there is no Other, where Giddens and Turrisi rough up their classical music with the gutter panache of rock and roll, cast Appalachian tunes with a Middle Eastern canter, bathe jigs and rambles in a mystic glow, and make show tunes sound raucous and earthy. It’s no surprise at all that the album sessions were overseen by producer Joe Henry, unparalleled as a wayfinder along the haunted back roads of folk tradition; indeed, the most helpful antecedents for this record might be The Bright Mississippi and American Tunes, a pair of uncircumscribed reckonings with jazz-as-folklore that Henry made with Allen Toussaint, the latter album enhanced by two show-stopping vocal assists from Giddens herself.

The revelation in all of this is that songs and folk grammars are bridges to one another, entryways and corridors in the neighborhood we inhabit; that there’s ultimately no such thing as island or isolation. (“This ain’t no archipelago,” Andrew Bird might hasten to add.) Giddens makes that point explicit in her original “Ten Thousand Voices,” a dirge that drones and swirls like Arabic music and introduces the album with a web of mutuality; the songs we sing and stories we tell are but pieces of a larger mosaic, it suggests. A few of these songs present us with immigrant encounters. Another original, “I’m on My Way,” has a co-writing credit from Henry; it’s a vagabond’s clanging blues, finding meaning in the journey even as the destination remains unsure. (“I’ve only got the taste for something sweet as time/ Not bottled on the table but still hanging on the vine.”) Giddens also sings the standard “Wayfaring Stranger,” long the anthem of pilgrims making progress, here rising from the steady pluck of a minstrel banjo to the misty splendor of Turrisi’s accordion. It would almost be perplexing if this album didn’t have a song or two associated with Nina Simone, still the patron saint and north star for any artist whose aim is to evade being captured by category, and a thumping take on “Brown Baby” feels like the record’s linchpin; it’s the plea of a mother who hopes to leave her child with a better world, when the only inheritance she can really offer is the song itself, ratified anew by one generation after another. A pair of instrumentals speak volumes, in particular Giddens’ title track, where banjo and frame drum sparkle with symbiosis, completing each other’s sentences. And in “He Will See You Through,” the closing hymn of perseverance and preservation, Giddens does for church music what she does elsewhere for opera, stripping it of ritual to reveal the emotional utility and ancient wisdom at its core.

Indeed, maybe ancient wisdom is another helpful way of receiving this record. Describing the culture of America in the 1960s, Joan Didion wrote that it was a time when “no one at all seemed to have any memory or mooring.” It’s hard to imagine a markedly improved prognosis today, but there is no Other offers grounding and connection; to a birthright of songs that exist beyond boundaries, and to the only neighborhood in which such songs could ever grow.