Artist: Esperanza Spalding
Album: Emily’s D+Evolution
In Brief: Is it jazz? Funk? Rock? R&B? Prog rock? Folk? YES! (Sort of.) However you label this bizarre mishmash of styles, it’s a jubilant celebration of a woman letting her mischievous alter ego come out to play. For me as a listener, it’s horizon-stretching in all the right ways.
You’re probably wondering where you’ve heard the name Esperanza Spalding before. She’s not a Latin music artist (though it’s probably among her many influences) and she has no affiliation with a sporting goods company. Why it’s ringing a bell is because she made waves for winning the Best New Artist Grammy back in 2012. Most of us “serious music listeners” don’t really pay the Grammys any mind, so normally I would not care about this, but she came out of seemingly nowhere to snatch the award away from the likes of Justin Bieber. For a jazz bassist from Portland, Oregon whose style is decidedly out of step with modern chart-toppers, that’s a jaw-dropping achievement. I automatically liked her as a person just on principle, but since jazz isn’t really a language I personally speak, I wasn’t sure if I’d like her music. It wasn’t until a few years later, when I was putting together a playlist themed around artists from the Pacific Northwest and I needed something to offset all of the glum alt-rockers dominating the list, that I stumbled across “City of Roses”, her gorgeously playful ode to the city of Portland. I still need to go back and give the album it came from, Radio Music Society, a listen, as well as the previous album Chamber Music Society that I believe actually prompted the Grammy win. But her latest release, Emily’s D+Evolution, is where I’ve chosen to start.
In a way, this confusingly titled album (is it a de-evolution or a D-plus evolution?) comes across a bit of a rebirth for Esperanza. There may have already been some elements of fusion that kept her prior discography from being simply jazz, but this album can’t easily be described with any single genre tag. You wouldn’t necessarily know from a casual listen that she plays the bass on all of these songs, because it generally isn’t the lead instrument. It’s more of a singer/songwriter effort, with Esperanza’s golden voice up front and a tasty palette of songs ranging from snarling rockers to jubilant funk-fests to laid-back, breezy folk numbers, seemingly intended to throw any listener off their game who thinks they’ve got her figured out. The stylistic breadth here is impressive, and a lot of it is certainly informed by her training as a jazz bassist (and before that, classical cellist), so for me it’s a nice way to ease into a world of unusual melodies and chord phrasings that might otherwise be tough to swallow. Sometimes the moments of beauty and the moments of oddball exploration are one in the same, as songs meander through strange melodic detours or off-kilter time signatures in their attempts to communicate the desired mood. I’ll never confuse a single song on this project for another one, and when an artist can do that and yet still have the collection of songs come across as a cohesive album, I see that as a huge victory.
The thematic inspiration for this album seems to be an alter ego named “Emily” (which is Esperanza’s middle name), who is evoked here as a way of expressing thoughts and feelings that Esperanza the young musical prodigy, the award-winning performer, the supposed “good girl”, might have been made to feel she wasn’t allowed to express at previous points in her life. That’s my best interpretation of her stated intent, at least. Nothing about the lyrics on this album strikes me as particularly controversial, though a few moments of social critique do slip in every now and then, so I guess it depends on your interpretation. What I like is that, unlike a lot of other female artists of her generation, her self-expression isn’t limited to sexual conquest or some sort of misguided notion that she’s got to make club music to gyrate to in order for her music to not be seen as just something old folks listen to. Romance and sex are alluded to at times, but they’re just a facet of who this “Emily” is, because she’s also a student, a spiritual seeker, a conscientious objector, a comforter. The constant genre shifts compliment these different facets of her personality beautifully, and while a few songs are moderately challenging to my ears, I like that she doesn’t relegate all of the stories she’s telling to “easy listening” territory. This isn’t an album you put on in the background to chill out or romance to. It’s an album you put on in the foreground to make you think, ask yourself why you like it and why you don’t like it and what it all means. Given that, I’m actually quite surprised that it’s emerging as one of my top picks for the year 2016 thus far.
1. Good Lava
The best word I can come up with to describe the opening track is “unruly”. I don’t mean that in a negative way – I rather like that the uninitiated listener might expect a stereotypical jazz sound and instead be greeted by growling electric guitars and a restless vocal melody that seems to sprawl out every which way instead of settling on a conventional hook. The combination of noisiness and playfulness tells us anything’s possible here, as Esperanza compares her Emily persona to a raging volcano, inviting an explorer to climb and conquer her peak, but issuing a not-so-subtle reminder that what looks beautiful from far away can be ferocious and burn him too a crisp if he doesn’t respect its majesty. It’s an unabashedly sexual metaphor, but also one that makes it clear she’s not coming at it from a meek, subservient perspective. The intimacy has to be earned, and those who overstep their boundaries will have hell to pay for it. Sonically, I can see this song’s defiant twists and turns getting on some listeners’ nerves, but I’m slowly learning to love it.
2. Unconditional Love
The second track, while far more accessible, didn’t grab my attention as much at first. I’m learning to love its subtle, sort of spacey approach – it’s one of the most interestingly textured tracks on the album, and Esperanza’s singing here is just sublime. She begs for a break from “these predictable roles” and tries to imagine what genuine love with no strings attached would feel like. It could be a plea for world peace, or just a new start for a relationship in which both parties have settled into a pattern of taking each other for granted – the interpretation here is malleable, and I enjoy that aspect of the song. At times I think this one might be too manicured for its own good – it starts and ends so neatly that it almost screams “please pick me as a radio single”. But I love the subtle interaction between the subdued guitars, bass, keyboards, and the lead and backing vocals, so there’s a lot more to like than to critique here.
Esperanza drops the lead bass riff in this song with some serious authority. Now that’s how you assert yourself on an instrument normally relegated to the background. This funky track, with its delightful bass runs and its stop/start rhythm, has a heck of a lot on its mind, calling out modern day Pharisees and sympathizing with the so-called “Juadases” of our world who are set up to fail, at least in the eyes of religious elites around them, seemingly from their birth. I like how she devotes a verse to how young girls are molded and what happens when they step out of line, and the second verse does the same for young boys. It makes the track order start to make sense, as the first track establishes a non-traditional but still decidedly feminine approach to sex, then the second track asks to break out of the traditional roles, then the third track explores how enforcing those roles propagates a corrupt system. I’m still trying to figure out how she manages to communicate so much without it ever sounding overly didactic or preachy. It must be the way the words roll off of her tongue. She packs a lot of ’em in here, but I always feel like she’s prompting her audience to consider a “what if” scenario rather than just blatantly lecturing us.
4. Earth to Heaven
The theme of religious hypocrisy continues into this piano-driven song, which bounces back and forth between its urgent, stuttering verse and a very relaxed, smoothly flowing, chorus. I wish I could tell what her vocal hook at the beginning of this one was saying – “We like heat on” or “We lack it all” are my best guesses, but the lyric book just starts with the first verse, so for all I know it could just be scatting. She’s taking the skeptic’s view here, wondering how society can justify imposing religious laws on everyone when we’ve never had anyone who has entered heaven or hell come back to tell the tale, and to the agnostic it all seems like just a best guess at the nature of the universe. The most damning line comes as the second verse slides back into the chorus – “What if the heavenly boss turns out to be ruling without order?” The need to take on her rebellious “Emily” persona becomes more apparent here, as this album’s function seems to be to ask us a lot of questions that the supposedly good, upstanding citizens around us fear to ask because they don’t want to rock the boat. I love the line “No virgins or saints here/You get to just keep on getting there, getting there”, because it suggests a worldview that suggests where you’re headed matters more than where you are or what exclusive group you claim to be part of.
Of all the tracks on the album, I may have had the most difficulty understanding this one, which isn’t to say it’s particularly dense; it’s just more that it’s the kind of song that seems to be very open-ended where interpretation is concerned. Like “Heaven to Earth”, it bounces back and forth between quiet and loud, this time with a particularly boisterous chorus (Esperanza really wails on this one) and more of a subdued verse. Celestial bodies appear to be a metaphor for human souls here, being pulled into each other’s orbit and whatnot, and Esperanza seems to be longing for a constant, a sun of sorts, “One so strong it stops the world and my heart’s spinning.” There’s a guitar solo in this song’s bridge that takes it slightly into psychedelic rock territory – or perhaps funk, I’m not really sure, but it adds a unqiue spice to it that I love.
6. Rest in Pleasure
With all of the complex lyrics to pick from throughout this album, it’s weird that such a lyrically simple song would end up being my favorite. This one’s really more about mood than about saying profound. It’s the kind of song that wraps you up in a cocoon of lovey-dovey sweetness and just asks you to stay there and enjoy the moment. This would be ridiculously saccharine if not for the fascinating instrumental interplay going on here – the bass and the guitar circling about, the exhilarating wash of drums and cymbals carrying us from one segment of the song to the next, the breathy “Ah-ah-ahs” that punctuate a repetitive but powerful chorus. The kicker is that she admits in the bridge – the most energetic part of the song – that she’s not 100% sure she’s in love, but she wants to enjoy all of the delight this relationship has to offer without having to worry yet about whether it’s forever. I like that sort of honesty in a love song. It’s not making any premature promises or outlandish claims. it’s just taking something beautiful between two people for what it is, without overanalyzing it. I love how this song has so much momentum driving it along and yet it has such a calming effect on me as a listener. It hits a sweet spot that few songs can pull off so adeptly.
7. Ebony and Ivy
Well hello, Miss Motor Mouth! There’s no way you’re going to catch even half of the words in the breathless poem she rattles off at the beginning and near the end of this song on first listen – heck, maybe even on tenth listen. This might be the densest song on the record in terms of double meanings and social commentary to unravel. I’m pretty sure it’s genius, and that I’m getting schooled, even if I haven’t figured out the entire meaning of it yet. I’m pretty sure it’s about school, actually. “Ebony and Ivy” would seem to be an obvious pun on “Ebony and Ivory”, with the implication being that institutions of higher learning, such as Ivy league schools, are unfairly biased towards a white worldview, perhaps not intentionally, but making people of color who come from different cultural paradigms and for whom language has perhaps evolved differently feel like they are “lesser”. There’s probably something in there about how the school system is kind of stacked against the more free-thinking, artsy types like Esperanza/Emily as well. Whether you agree or disagree (and that’s assuming I’m not completely mangling the intended meaning here), it’s hard to argue with the sheer catchiness of this unconventionally structured, but brilliantly composed song. I love how the melody turns corners, from the false sense of security you get in the verses (which fits in quite well with the mood established in “Rest in Pleasure”) to the muddier electric guitar that comes in on the chorus (which isn’t as rowdy as “Good Lava”, but which packs a punch nonetheless). I get the chorus of this one stuck in my head far too easily. That makes me want to come back and unravel the rest of the babbling that’s just sort of crammed into the margins at the end, as if to say a standard essay format doesn’t even cover the half of it.
8. Noble Nobles
Esperanza has a talent for instilling a false sense of security right before hitting the listener with a real gutpunch. I love the acoustic guitar in this one. It feels open, airy, coffeehouse-y. Then I notice that the rhythm is a bit off-kilter and I can never quite latch on to a consistent pattern. There is a pattern, of course, but it’s too math-y for me to fully work it out. The soothing vocal hook here is top notch, but the lyrics take a turn toward the subversive: “Drinking dapper gents in wig and rosy cultured views/Toasting the news All cargo on Jesus was sold today.” What’s that all about? Turns out it’s a reference to the slave trade and our tendency to whitewash history, forgetting how many empires were established and wars were won on the backs of slaves and unwilling migrant workers. That helps to bring the seemingly redundant title into focus, because she’s separating out the noun “noble” from the adjective “noble”, and saying that these people born into high society who painted themselves as heroes were, in fact, savages. Just focusing on the trippy time signature, the muted trumpet, and the relaxed-yet-slightly-uneasy vibe of the song, you might miss this, but that’s part of what I love about this record – you can listen to it just for the interesting directions she takes the music and then when you take the time examine the lyrics, you’re listening on a whole other level.
9. Farewell Dolly
This short song feels like a less polished and rehearsed moment caught on tape, just Esperanza by herself with her bass, working out a melody with some self-reflective and slightly cynical lyrics thrown in. There’s some interesting stuff here and there – “Waiting for a man to die/For a piece of the pie” really stands out. But melodically and in terms of instrumentation, it’s a bit dry. It brings the strong momentum established by the last few songs to a halt, and the album never quite gets back up to that level of amazing afterward.
10. Elevate or Operate
This song is weird and whimsical all at once. It’s similar to “Good Lava” in that it blatantly refuses to resolve to the sort of chord progression your ear expects it to, but it’s more of a piano-based romp, almost reminding me of a circus due how the melody teeter-totters up and back and down again. This one seems to be a conversation between two opposing voices – the pragmatist and the idealist, with one expressing sky’s-the-limit dream visions and the other one coldly saying things like “Honey, don’t interrupt me” and “Don’t make me turn this thing around!”, like an aggravated mother tempted to abort a road trip because the kids in the back seat won’t stop throwing tantrums. I’d imagine that this could be the Emily voice and the Esperanza voice duking it out to see which one will influence her future actions. To tell you the truth, the sheer repetition of this one gets kind of annoying, but I can see that she was going for something unconventional and I can appreciate the combination of harsh and playful moods that she’s going for here.
11. Funk the Fear
“Funk the fear! Live your life!” Ah yes, it’s the time-honored tradition of using “Funk” as a substitute for the F-bomb. You get all the satisfaction of spitting out those harsh consonants and getting all those negative feelings out of your system so you can accentuate the positive instead, and nobody in your audience is actually offended by it! Win/win situation, am I right? To be fair, if anyone has the right to do this, it’s a funk band, and Esperanza cobbled a pretty convincing one together for this track – in my mind, all that’s missing here is a Robert Randolph cameo. It sounds like everybody here is having a blast, particularly the guitarist and Esperanza herself as the two of them play off of each other’s adept, fluid soloing throughout much of the song. This is more of an extended jam than anything else – you’re more likely to remember the excitedly shouted chorus than any melodic aspect of the vocal performance here. It’s a lot of fun to listen to, and everyone involved clearly has a ton of talent, but if I’m honest, it’s not one of the songs that I find most memorable when I think back on the listening experience afterwards.
12. I Want It Now
I genuinely did not understand at first why Esperanza chose to end the record with this overly theatrical ode to selfishness. The lyrics are all about her wanting all this decadent stuff and not wanting to share it with anybody, and I was taken aback by the piano melody wandering every which way it chooses (not to mention the pace of the song, which goes from slow and brooding to manic with little warning). As it turns out, this song is a Veruca Salt cover – and I don’t mean the band, I mean the character from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. This is the song that the spoiled little girl actually sings in the film right before taking a dive down the “bad egg” chute. Esperanza’s take changes up the melody and character of the song quite a bit, so if you’re like me and you haven’t seen the film since you were a kid, you’d be forgiven for not immediately recognizing it. Now that I understand where it’s from, I find it more amusing than I used to, but it’s still a heck of a weird way to end an album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Good Lava $1.25
Unconditional Love $1.25
Earth to Heaven $1
Rest in Pleasure $2
Ebony and Ivy $1.75
Noble Nobles $1.75
Farewell Dolly $.25
Elevate or Operate $.75
Funk the Fear $1
I Want It Now $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: