Review: Esperanza Spalding’s Strikingly Original ’12 Little Spells’
The genre-defying artist’s idiosyncratic vision recalls Joni Mitchell and Prince
Esperanza Spalding’s enthusiasm for bundling her releases with attention-grabbing concepts ”” like writing and recording an entire album in an uninterruptedÂ 77-hourÂ livestream, or dedicating each song on herÂ newÂ LP,Â 12 Little Spells,Â to a different body part ”” might make it seem like she’s attempting to mask some shortcoming in the actual music. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Grammy-winning bassist/vocalist/composer, a former child prodigy steeped in classical andÂ jazzÂ but bounded by neither, is well over a decade into one of the most fruitful and strikingly original careers in contemporary pop.
Excellent prior efforts like 2017’sÂ ExposureÂ and 2016’sÂ character-drivenÂ Emily’sÂ D+EvolutionÂ combined sturdy hooksÂ and bold idiosyncrasy in a way that seemed comparable only to fellow genre-of-one artists like Joni Mitchell, BjÃ¶rk or Spalding’s friend and collaborator Prince. Her new LP favors a slightly dreamier aesthetic (see the gorgeous, overture-like opener “12 Little Spells,” dedicated to the thoracic spine). But there’s still music here that will make your head spin with its exquisite intergenre oddity, like the prog-meets-pop-meets-spoken-word mini opus “The Longing Deep Down” (an “abdominal portal” ode on which she sings, “It’s fucking hard to be longing/And at the same time feel your own belonging”) or “Dancing the Animal,” an ultra-mathy art-funk meditation on the era of the cloud written for the mind/brain.
As with Spalding’s earlier albums, the conceptual hook ofÂ 12 Little SpellsÂ only hints at the radically inventive nature of the songs themselves.