In Brief: Imagine what would happen if Sufjan Stevens and Björk got together and had musical babies. That’s a pretty good place to start in attempting to describe My Brightest Diamond’s fascinating new album.
I had heard My Brightest Diamond long before I had ever heard of My Brightest Diamond. How is that even possible? Well, it’s the stage name for one Shara Worden, a singer/songwriter who used to be part of Sufjan Stevens‘ exuberant posse of voices and multi-instrumentalists, as heard on albums like Illinois and The Age of Adz. I must have listened to Illinois in particular more times than any other record that’s come out in the past decade, but there’s so much going on there that I wouldn’t have picked her out specifically. But on The Age of Adz, she stands out quite clearly as the female vocalist who takes the lead for a good chunk of that record’s wonky yet epic closing track, “Impossible Soul”. I didn’t come to know who she was or that she had a solo career until early 2012, when I read some good things about her third album, All Things Will Unwind, and decided to give it a whirl. It was a tender, playful, sometimes off-kilter baroque pop record, dominated by classical and somewhat jazzy instrumentation, the kind of thing that made her a perfect fit for Sufjan’s record label Asthmatic Kitty, but not immediately the sort of thing that I would know how to process. I was intrigued by some of her lighthearted observations on marriage, her intimate odes to motherhood, and a few of the sassier numbers that popped up in the back half of the record just when I thought I had her sound pegged. But it wasn’t a record I went back to a whole lot – there was a languid pace to most of it that made it slip into the background unless I was really trying to pay close attention to the details. The few songs that noticeably employed a rhythm section stood out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t the sort of thing I would expect from an artist in her genre, so it was more a case of me not fully understanding where she was coming from in terms of her classical training, and not her making missteps as an artist.
However, my secret wish that she’d add a little more oomph to her sound seems to have come true with her fourth album, This Is My Hand. Without warning, its opening track kicks the door down by way of a triumphant drum march, and several other tracks on the album follow suit, merging the sort of percussive indie pop and electronica that I tend to enjoy into the orchestral/chamber pop magic that she was already doing quite well in the past. At times there’s an exploratory nature to it that brings Björk to mind (though I think Shara’s vocal style is a bit easier to get the hang of than Björk’s). It’s certainly a move that will seem excessive to some, especially if you like your music more on the sparse end of things, but the beauty of it is that the emphasis on rhythm and the overlaid electronic ambiance also complement the mellower tracks on this album, resulting in a short but sweet setlist that carves out a memorable new identity for My Brightest Diamond.
Perhaps the strangest thing of all about this record, beyond the mish-mash of modern and timeless genres, is the surprising focus of some of her lyrics. A few songs, while delivered in the uniquely operatic tone she’s always employed, reveal strikingly personal or even downright creepy thoughts, guaranteeing that a trip through this record won’t simply be a wall of happy fluff. Even the happy fluff is poetically written, clearly coming from a woman who has recently rediscovered her full potential and doesn’t want to be held back by nothing or no one. Still, in between the bolder statements are quiet reflections on matters of the unseen, especially in the back half of the album where things get decidedly mystical but not quite explicitly spiritual. This is an album where the light reveals brilliant new colors as you examine it from different angles, much like the diamonds she sings about at the very beginning of it. The shadows shift underneath to dodge those rays of refracted light, but even in that uncomfortable exercise of examining her darker side, there’s a bravery revealed in it, as if to say that naming and knowing those personal demons gives her power over them. There’s a lot more to it than its brief running time of 10 songs lasting 40 minutes might lead you to believe. I’ve been dazzled by this one since pretty much the first listen, and it’s definitely guaranteed a spot in my Top 10 – probably even my Top 5 – when the year 2014 comes to a close.
Drum roll please! Few things will get my ears perked up as easily as lively, inventive percussion, and this track is one of my all-time favorite examples, merging the sort of drum march you’d expect to hear at a football game with the horn and woodwind sections that brought such a sense of beauty and wonder to her past work. This song is all about the joy of rediscovering your creative passions, and it’s clear that Shara wanted this anthem of self-invention to be her new theme song, given how close the chorus comes to dropping her stage name: “I forgot the sound/Of diamonds, so bright I cannot hide ’em/So heavy, I cannot mine ’em.” Amidst all of the hard and tedious work that it takes to wear the hats of artist, mother, and lover all at the same time, the pressure turns coal into diamonds, which I’m guessing is a metaphor for taking something that once felt like a chore and renewing it with all kinds of delightful, creative impulses. She’s found her muse again, and the energy it’s given her is infectious. While I’d categorize this one more as “baroque pop” than “electronica”, it is interesting to me that the drum breakdowns between verses seem intentionally clipped, as if they were distorted by a computer and then played back so that the sound levels would go into the red. My Brightest Diamond isn’t an artist who aims for “over the top” very often, but it’s thematically appropriate here because she’s got more excitement than she can hope to ever contain.
2. Before the Words
The second track on All Things Will Unwind, “Reaching Through to the Other Side”, was a slow but rhythmic trance of a song, in which a mother communicated that she could hear her unborn child and its eagerness to break through and discover the world outside the womb. This track sort of flips that perspective, thinking of that connection between mother and child from the inside out, and noting how her voice, her heartbeat, and the music she makes are the first things the child perceives about that outside world. It starts of unassumingly enough with just Shara’s voice and a muted guitar, but pretty soon that “be-be-be-beat” kicks in and things are rolling along at a delightfully brisk pace. The drums get another solid workout here, while the horns and flutes add urgent punctuation to several of Shara’s lyrics, as if to say that mother might be calm and loving and nurturing, but baby’s getting antsy and just wants to get this show on the road already!
3. This Is My Hand
The title track hints at some of the eerier moments to come later in the album, as an ominous bass line keeps rising up again and again, deliberately contradicting the steady 4/4 count of the song’s rhythm with its sequence of six notes, creating a sort of subtle polyrhythm over which Shara begins to list the various components of her body and her personality, as if this were some sort of post-modern “Dem Bones”. At first it just seems like a silly anatomical exercise, but as the woodwind section begins to churn louder and louder and she begins to list the more sinister (“This is my shadow/This is my doubt”) and the more intimate (“This is my thigh/This is my sex/This is my hip/This my breast”) aspects of herself, I get the sense that she’s trying to pull together these disparate parts, with their various biological and emotional urges, with a single goal in mind: “This is my bloom/My flame/My joy/My aim/To love.”
4. Lover Killer
Oh man, this is my JAM right here. She’s got me from the first set of handclaps, as if she wanted to do something like Radiohead‘s “15 Step”, but in 7/8 time and with a slower, more foreboding groove. She starts with a rather odd metaphor about seeing a flock of crows and somehow killing one of them, as if to say that part of her wants to admire this natural, beautiful thing while another part of her wants to watch it die. It pulls together the dark and light aspects of who she is as an artist into a satisfying whole, as the song bounces back and forth between its sexy, off-kilter beat, its straight-ahead chorus driven by a classy horn section, and its more sinister bridge which brings in the dark guitar and fuzzy bass and distorts her voice just enough to make you unsure of whether “I am a lover and a killer!” is meant as a confession or as a threat.
5. I Am Not the Bad Guy
In case you still hadn’t shaken off any previous notions of My Brightest Diamond only existing to make pretty and happy sounds, this track oughta put the final nail in that coffin with its cold, Nine Inch Nails-esque beat, its grumbling electric guitar, and its absolutely creepy melody. It’s a rather stark confession of her ability to hurt the people who are closest to her, with every line seeming to cast new doubt on whether her actions are just careless neglect or more calculated, manipulative abuse. I like the overall mood of this song. I like that certain surprise moments and uneasy chord progressions sort of give me the willies. But there’s also a point at which this song starts to drag a bit and her intentional aversion of conventional melody or song structure starts to feel like she’s just sort of aimlessly wandering and grasping for notes that don’t quite fit. It’s what you get when you apply a more of a “classical” type of vocalist to more of an avant garde, alt-pop sort of composition. I could see Portishead fans potentially getting into this one.
6. Looking at the Sun
The second half of the record is, on the whole, more laid-back and intimate than the first half. It’s still quite rhythmic in nature, but the drums tend to be softer and the song structures more crystalline. This song is a pretty good example – despite the weird start that it gets off to when the drums are tripping over themselves trying to slow down to match her casual little lullaby about what happens “When you close your eyes”, it’s all decked out with gentle chimes and soothing background vocals, and the melody evokes a sense of wonder, rather than dread. This one may well be a post-modern “When You Wish Upon a Star”, since she seems to be implying that limits only exist in the mind and that imagination can make the impossible, possible. I tend to approach the song as though she were singing it to a child, because children are constantly discovering that they can do things that were impossible for them mere months or weeks ago, and because songs like this have just sort of embedded a “mystical loving mother” sort of image of the artist in my mind.
One of the more abstract songs on the album seems almost designed to throw me off just when I think I’ve got the hang of it. I’m digging on the cool programmed keyboards softly tapping out the song’s uneven rhythm at first, as Shara plays the role of some disembodied spirit or higher power, her voice full of hesitant wonder as she reminds us that we can’t predict how she’ll appear or whether she’ll look like a friend or foe when she does. Robotic background vocals chime in, repeating a few of her lyrics, and suddenly there’s this little jolt of electronic feedback that interrupts the entire rhythm of the song. It doesn’t quite startle me, but it definitely changes up the mood. Not long past that point, the song settles into a chilled out 4/4 groove, not too dissimilar from one of Sufjan’s more experimental compositions, and I’m especially reminded of Sufjan when the other voices cheerily chime in “Everybody take a shape!” at the end of the song, as if it were some sort of a rallying cry for doppelgangers all over the world.
8. So Easy
The one true hiccup in an otherwise thoroughly engaging record shows up here, in a track which subdues every element of every sound that it makes to the point where it comes across as an uneventful, sleepy trance without much of a melody that really hits home. Her lyrics, though minimal, are a wonderfully romantic invitation, taking a lover’s hand and wading into deep, cool waters together, this person’s presence removing all traces of fear that she once felt. It all feels like it’s leading up to something, but then the chorus of the song just feels like a footnote, lazily humming over and over, “Oh, you said it was easy… so easy.” It just feels so inconclusive, and the closest thing we have to a riff or a repeating instrumental motif is this slightly syncopated sequence of two notes that keeps bouncing back and forth along to the restrained rhythm that bumps about in the background. I don’t mind a few minutes of sustained ambiance, but since this is one of a few moments on the record where the percussion truly seems to have been de-emphasized, I find myself longing for something, anything to stand out in place of it.
Those who perceive the entire back half of this record as being rather sleepy are missing out on some seriously good stuff if they don’t make a mental note of this song. While not as aggressive as anything in the first half, it may well be the most musically sophisticated track on the album, melting together a series of repeating drum, piano, and guitar riffs into an irregular whirlpool of sounds, with every player in the room feeling like they’re operating in a completely different time signature from the person next to them. The drums and guitars in particular have a bit of a jazzy spin to them, but I truly don’t know how to classify the song as a whole. Despite what may seem like musical disarray at first, there’s a definite pattern to Shara’s vocals, which seem to be the overall guide that tells everyone else where their distinct patterns are supposed to all converge and then split off from each other again. When the chorus comes around, suddenly everyone’s in lock-step, and of course now they’re all playing the same irregular rhythm, which is one of those things that makes my mathematical mind geek out as I then look back on the more chaotic parts of the song and try to figure out if they were hinting at that unified pattern all along. For all I know, it may sound like one big horrible mess if you’re not the type who is inclined to keep track of complicated time signatures. But unlike a few of the other songs where I’ve complained about the melody and rhythm seeming to go nowhere, this one sounds bright and shiny and downright determined when its beautiful chorus vocal comes pouring in, as if she’s finally found that resonant frequency and now her heart and her lover’s are humming along in perfect harmony. That sounds cheesy, I know, but there are very few artists who can hint at concepts I learned about in high school physics and make them sound genuinely romantic.
The album’s final track, adapted from the writings of French poet Stéphane Mallarmé, seems about as subdued as “So Easy” at first. But there’s more of a sense of determination and finality to it as its gentle beat thumps like a calm heart, and its glowing ambiance seems to get brighter as you get deeper into the song, as if you’re approaching a door to some new supernatural realm that awaits beyond. Such lush lyrics as “The blessed day of your first kiss” and the album’s final thought, “Bouquets of white snow, of perfumed stars”, make it feel like an encounter with a kindly ghost, one who can only stick around for a few minutes, but the encounter changes you for a lifetime. It’s an ideal song for quiet contemplation on a brisk winter evening. While I tend the stunning climax of “Resonance” as the last truly exciting moment on the album, I do appreciate having this peaceful reflection here as a sort of postscript.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Before the Words $1.75
This Is My Hand $1.25
Lover Killer $2
I Am Not the Bad Guy $1
Looking at the Sun $1.25
So Easy $.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: