SPELLLING & the Mystery School is a Glamorous Recasting of a Rising Star’s Career
Chrystia Cabral’s latest project reimagines the greatest hits off her three critically acclaimed LPsMusic Reviews SPELLLING
It feels like just yesterday that Chrystia Cabral, better known as SPELLLING, dropped her debut album Pantheon of Me, winning over keen listeners with a haunting collection of neo-soul songs that fill a room like an intoxicating perfume. Since then, she’s dropped two more full-lengths, each growing bigger and bolder than the one it succeeds. Her most recent, The Turning Wheel, ditched her trademark, synth-forward production for orchestration with 31 collaborating musicians, resulting in a project that sounds like the score to a hopeful and haunted Broadway hit. Its brilliant arrangement and cutting lyricism won SPELLLING a growing fanbase that clamors for more. That fanbase is about to receive something distinct on SPELLLING & the Mystery School, a collection reimagining Cabral’s greatest hits.
SPELLLING & the Mystery School represents a melding of two realities: SPELLLING as a recording artist and SPELLLING as a performing artist. Over the years, her intricate songs have taken on different forms, as Cabral and her collaborators experiment with new textures and instruments. While fans may have come to know one version of her hits, there’s no doubt they’ll see another at SPELLLING’s transportive live shows. It’s these iterations and more that populate SPELLLING & the Mystery School. They are not simple rehashings; they are total renovations, and Cabral has taken her songs down to the studs and come back up with careful, inventive production and arrangements. These versions are so dynamic and immersive that it feels as if she and her band are performing right in front of the listener.
Hits from all three of SPELLLING’s LPs show up on Mystery School, all of which feature a piano front-and-center, with a rhythm section, backing vocals and string quartet close by. Where many of SPELLLING’s hits, especially on Pantheon of Me and Mazy Fly, feel like gothic interior musings looping into obscurity, Mystery School takes the theatrical stylings of The Turning Wheel and applies them thriftily. It’s not the massive ensemble that made the original recordings of “Boys at School” or “Always” such hits, but the bravado is still there, this time with the charm of a Broadway pit orchestra. Early cuts like “Walk Up to Your House” and “They Start the Dance” are still eerie and fluid, much like the rest of Pantheon, but beneath Cabral’s voice is a drum kit and a quartet that more obviously elevate and cut through the tension,
“Under the Sun,” the six-minute standout from 2019’s Mazy Fly, offers one of the most exciting reworkings on the whole album. Where the original featured woozy, slurring synths that slid and popped like something not of this earth, the Mystery School version features brilliantly tickled keys and steady drums. Cabral’s dream-pop feels closer to glam rock in these moments, and she revels in it. “Haunted Water” retains the synth opener that defines it, with Cabral playing the trademark loops, but the guitar that pops in and out before taking over towards the song’s end facilitates the song’s transition to glam in a full, steadfast evolution.
The sprawling “Boys at School” goes a step beyond, as the piano and string quartet replicate the opening with naked passion. Already as melodramatic as adolescence feels, the Mystery School version feels more pointed, with even swifter dynamic changes, lush string performances and a hypnotic guitar solo that mirrors the nuances of angst. The piano is a star here and on “Always,” which features one of Cabral’s best vocal performances of her career. Even with the smaller arrangements, the drama is still there, if not even more pronounced.
SPELLLING & the Mystery School is a career triumph, evidence that the young connoisseur of art-pop already has the material for a greatest hits compilation. For Cabral, however, it’s not enough just to compile her most celebrated tracks. To her, each song is a living document that is capable of evolving from its original form into something else entirely with the guidance of her ever-changing and trusted ensemble. They retain the original charms that made them stand out—the tracks originally on Pantheon of Me, for example, still emphasize looping and repetition—but their new forms take on something between show-tunes and glam rock that grips just as hard. Already, SPELLLING has shown how she can transform her project from peculiar, interior pop to something grandiose—and Mystery School demonstrates her versatility: Not only can Cabral reorient her sound, she can fashion her existing songs with a new, consistent approach, closely tying all of her eras together under one project. As such, SPELLING & the Mystery School is a paean to a career that has only just begun but already shows boundless promise.
Devon Chodzin is a critic and urban planner with bylines at Slumber Mag, Merry-Go-Round and Post-Trash. He is currently a student in Philadelphia. He lives on Twitter @bigugly.