Esperanza Spalding bewitches with ‘12 Little Spells’
Weird is too often a cover for mediocrity or an epithet meant to describe what is foreign to us.
Sure, Esperanza Spalding’s new music and video project, “12 Little Spells,” is weird. Weird like seeing the inside of the singer-bassist’s eyeballs and an animation that for all the world resembles a uterus dancing to the beat. The music and lyrics lean in similar directions.
But that isn’t a cover for mediocrity, nor does it represent anything so unfamiliar. The project is a magnificently creative magnification of 12 body parts in as many music videos, or “song spells.” The spells were released one day at a time beginning Oct. 7, each accompanied by a freely poetic description.
For instance, “To Tide Us Over,” the second spell, is devoted to the mouth — “for the ability to speak sweet-water clarity during a flood of un-potable, and indescribable feelings and experiences,” she says.
The video opens with a vibrating red sheet (as Spalding makes agitated “mmm” sounds over the scratch of an electric guitar), which cuts to a shot of a giant singing mouth (as the “mmm” finally becomes a sung “maybe”) hovering above a storm-dark seascape. In the first half of the song, the lyrics and time are ambiguous, and Spalding’s singing winds ethereally through a swirl of guitar, organ, and layered vocals in the same register. On screen, a shrouded figure appears on a bluff.
The complexity of the spells is stretched across many mediums: the songs themselves, the videos, accompanying statements, and often in Spalding’s social media posts. The multimedia approach is the best way to experience “12 Little Spells,” with each part both explaining and deepening the mystery. Since these spells are designed to heal the body, according to Spalding, you might as well get the full complement.
After releasing the final video, Spalding made the album’s 12 tracks available on streaming services (physical copies of the album won’t be available until March 2019). She has also announced a tour with 12 performances, including one at Berklee Performance Center on Dec. 8. Facebook videos of her in rehearsal suggest that the concerts will be in the elaborate vein of the videos, adding yet another layer to a project for which there is already so much to unpack.
Musically, the album extends Spalding’s close collaboration with guitarist Matthew Stevens, whose contributions are instantly recognizable. Stevens was also featured on “Exposure” (2017) — an album written and recorded in 77 hours, all of it live-streamed — and “Emily’s D+Evolution” (2016), which saw the Berklee-educated Spalding delve into an electric alter ego.
This album bears a resemblance to those previous ones, but fleetingly. The concise songs (most run about 4:30) are ordered so that each sounds unlike the last, but the instrumentation is generally consistent — typically electric bass, drums, guitar, with occasional added keyboards, centralized around the vocal line. The most common thread among the tracks is the use of moody looping patterns, while echoes of electropop add a new dimension to Spalding’s music.
As an album, “12 Spells” is more uneven than “D+Evolution,” but Spalding strips aside her alter ego to explore an even deeper, more personal place on this album. The most obvious influence on the work is Spalding’s newfound interest in Reiki, a century-old Japanese philosophy of healing. She recorded “Touch in Mine” with a circular laying on of hands with Reiki practitioners, whose voices can be heard on the track.
Spalding’s lyrics sprawl from spirituality and knowledge in modern times (“Have you prayed to your phone today?) to the dynamics and politics of love (“Where do I fit in your power trip?”).
When all the parts work together — lyrics, music, video — the album has genuine force.
In “The Longing Deep Down,” Spalding seems to wrestle with maternal yearning. (This is where the dancing uterus comes in.) The frantic, anxious tension of the song finally ruptures in sweet release. “It’s [expletive] hard to be longing and at the same time feel your own belonging,” Spalding sings above a piano pounding out a major triad. In the video, blinding silver rain pours down.
The sound of a woman conjuring the contradictions, beauty, strangeness, and power of her body is deeply moving and very possibly magic.
And there is nothing weird about that.
At Berklee Performance Center, Dec. 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets $35-$55, www.etix.com