Why do we listen to music? Is it purely for entertainment, or to provide a background soundtrack for moments in our lives? Is it for political reasons, is it for a message or in protest? How about for healing, for spiritual nourishment?
The latter is the primary goal of Esperanza Spalding’s latest album SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB. Her 12 “Formwelas” numbered 1-13 (notably skipping number 12) aim to target certain stressors in our lives and alleviate them. For example, “Formwela 8” aims to provide a place of comfort and a feeling of ease to the listener. Spalding’s medicine cabinet of eclectic songs and sounds are as pleasant to the ear as they are healing to the soul.
The album is somewhat of a departure from her previous album 12 Little Spells, in that the music is more abstract, straying away from traditional song forms and morphing into something closer to soundscapes. SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB walks the line of experimentation and peculiarity without being too dense — it’s accessible while pushing the boundaries of the acoustic experience. The album starts off with “Formwela 1,” a prelude to the mystical and foreign sonic landscapes in the rest of the album. The opening is a unison; it cuts through the silence like a beam of light, and the music opens up into a dreamy lullaby filled with whole-tone scales and sounds of nature. The songs flow seamlessly from one to the next thanks to well-executed transitions.
The way that Spalding utilizes her voice, the sheer range of characters and emotions she conveys, reminds me of Erykah Badu. Listen to “Formwela 10” and then listen to this acoustic version of “Rimshot” by Badu. Spalding layers her own voice in unison many times, leading to a strange ethereal sound. It’s not mechanically precise, yet there is something inhuman about it — like she’s a shaman channeling some greater spirit through her melodies. There is an incredible diversity of different sounds and timbres on the album as well; each “Formwela” is a musical microcosm. From the sounds of acoustic bass to overdriven guitar to ambient electronics, there is an incredible biome of sounds on the album. One of my personal favorites is “Formwela 2,” where Spalding collaborates with Ganavya, an Indian vocalist who lends her voice to sing ragas and improvise over the lush harmonies. Ganavya is like a songbird singing in a vibrant rainforest.
Generally, the album is collaborative and successful on that front. Another notable contributor is Corey King, who collaborated with Spalding on “Formwela 5” and “Formwela 6.” It’s incredible how different the two songs are, and yet King and Spalding work so well with each other on both. While “Formwela 5” is more reminiscent of a song from musical theatre or cabaret, filled with strong emotions and passionate delivery, “Formwela 6” is as minimalist as possible with a gorgeous quasi-baroque bassline and simple melody. King manages to match Spalding’s energy on each track, which is no small feat.
Another standout track on the album is “Formwela 9.” It goes from spoken word to a ballad to an Ornette Coleman-styled jazz break in the span of two minutes. It’s hard to believe, despite covering so much ground musically, that it still manages to sound coherent. It’s definitely worth a second listen.
SONGWRIGHTS APOTHECARY LAB is a magical journey through various soundscapes. The vocal wizardess herself Esperanza Spalding once again takes us to places that we didn’t know we needed to go. There’s something for everyone on this album, whether you’re just looking for some tunes to relax to, or you need to unpack some negative emotions, or anything else really: This album could change your life.
Daily Arts Writer Jason Zhang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.