It would be easy to compare Esperanza Spalding to Bjork, or Joni Mitchell, or Kate Bush, but that implies that there can Only Be One. Instead, Spalding’s 12 Little Spells joins a long line of her goddess foremothers in their innovation.
Each song is dedicated to a corresponding body part, which is weird but also delightful. On “Until The Next Full,” she sings, “Our eyeballs are hollow/but presently hold shape/around a gooey filling” is obviously dedicated to her eyes, as is the sultry “Thang” with its purring demand that you “sink into your hip” but others, such as “You’re pouring into the mouth of a sober taboo/Truth slurring right out of you/And whoever you’ve half been, “dedicated to her Solar Portal (?), are less obvious.
There’s something inherently beautiful about a woman singing to each piece of her, examining the complications of existing within the female skin, rather than focusing on the flaws the way magazines/makeup ads/Instagram influencers constantly harp about. “You can never be too magical,” she sings on “You Have To Dance” (Feet). It rises up with a subtle and glittering joy to join other anthems, including Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and fellow Prince protege Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane” in celebrating the indomitable female spirit, Black Girl Magic, our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and all those who aren’t afraid to get onto the floor with their best shoes on.
But like most journeys, there are times when songs like “Touch In Mine” (Fingers) and “Ready To Rise” (Legs) stretch to being a touch boring, if not downright exhausting. Easy listening, it is not. It requires a dedication that I, at times, wasn’t sure I had. But it’s worth sticking with for the long haul.
Musically, there is nothing constrained about her performance as a vocalist or a bassist. It’s extremely organic, as though each song is unfolding right before you, rather than after laboring in a recording studio. The monologue during “The Longing Deep Down” (Abdominal Portal) flows like a caffeinated conversation with a friend, even though she’s the only one talking.
This is not dinner jazz, but no one who picks up an Esperanza Spalding album expects it to be. Her voice and her bass are a listener’s guide on a tour with no map and no destination, but where wonders abound.