The latest experimental epic from My Brightest Diamond, entitled This is My Hand, is an album with really only one problem: I have no idea what to say about it. Breaking down the fourth wall here: I'm stumped.
Trying to figure out how to sum up the 10 mostly four-to-five-minute tracks and half an hour talking with band headmistress Shara Worden is like trying to explain Inception with crayons -- if the story of Inception kept changing. My impression of this album hasn't even stayed the same long enough for me to write it down. Which may be the ultimate compliment to My Brightest Diamond, and usually a feature of my most favorite albums: that they take a some time to get into.
The issue with This is My Hand -- if it can even be called an issue -- is much the same as with talking to Worden herself: There's more information that you know what to do with. It's difficult to figure out what to grab onto. Stories that start off about Worden traveling with her school choir at 13 and winning awards in Europe, suddenly take a turn:
At that time I was living in Michigan and listening to hip-hop and, you know, rap. That was with Biggie, and Tupac, and Run DMC, and Heavy D. The early '90s is prime time for hip-hop and R&B.
Which is to completely ignore the backstory to that, about her classical-cum-calypso/jazz pianist uncle, classical accordionist father and organist mother. Which is to gloss over still the whole traveling evangelist part of her upbringing that we never even got around to talking about.
So maybe it's better to focus on the music itself.
Musically, the easiest thing to grab onto from This is My Hand is the first thing you hear: the drum line intro to "Pressure" -- a thumping but straightforward tool that everyone loves. Simple enough, right?
Wrong. Talking to Worden, it isn't just a drum line: It's the modern interpretation of the tribal nature of music, inspired by reading books like The Third Chimpanzee and The World in Six Songs.
I took the marching band as this kind of symbol of this place in American culture where a lot of people have access to be in a marching band... and I said okay, well here's this place in our culture that we all have access to, playing music together.
And then you realize that she's right (of course, it is her music after all), and suddenly you hear not just the drum line at the beginning, but the tribal tom-poundings that drive songs forward throughout.
And then you start thinking about percussion in general, and realize that unlike with many artists, the drums you hear on one song may be completely different from the one in another song. That not one part of this album is added by accident, and no two songs orchestrated exactly the same way.
So you want to go all music nerd on it, and grab onto the polyrhythmic spree -- the magic of her use of meter, and the overall first-rate composition. But then, apparently that's not Shara's goal.
Does it matter that there are 5s and 7s and 4-over-5? No. I don't think that stuff matters to me, to tell the listener. There's a lot of fun little math things happening that I find particularly satisfying. But I don't think that's even what I really care about. I think what I want people to feel is included.
Ah, inclusion. That's must be it.
But it doesn't quite work. As engrossing as Worden's operatic style is, it doesn't sound inclusive. Not with the way her delivery comes out of a musical history that's been purposefully exorcised the groanings and shakings that we consider emotive. The sound of five years of studying classical vocal performance.
So it's stuffy and cerebral then.
Maybe... but only until you put down your phone, put on some headphones and really listen the way music was meant to be listened to. Then you hear how Worden is able to stretch single words out with wonderful subtlety of meaning, and chop up syllables to syncopate against delicate beats. And then all of a sudden, you begin to get it. And you feel included after all. I felt included.
Where does that leave us?
Well, with a mess of an article. But to put it simply, This Is My Hand is an album I would recommend to anyone -- for exactly all the reasons that it's hard to write about. It's fascinating, deep and explorable, with elemental lyrics written in wonderful structure and a kind of misty mystery that seeps in only when we talk about our own prehistory. It's packed with performances that are top-notch from every angle, and the more you listen to the record, the more it gets into your bones.
But it can take a while. In modern music -- especially pop -- the relentless repetition of the theme or hook means it's easy to understand any song in a single listen. Not so with the type of tracks that come from My Brightest Diamond on this album. Here, the idea spans the whole song, playing out from the first note to the finish. And so to achieve the same level of comfort that you get with traditional pop music, you may have to listen to the whole song as many times as a hook is repeated in a top-40 hit.
Like I said, it can take a while.
But it works. What you may have found alienating and strange at first listen, at some point you will find yourself singing on the way to work. That's when Worden's goal is finally realized. When you start to see My Brightest Diamond as the inviting ensemble that she intends it to be, rather than an impenetrable wall of thought.
There may however, be a shortcut. Which is to simply go see My Brightest Diamond as they travel the world performing the record. If you do, you may get a chance to be a part of the ensemble in the far more literal way.
We are playing as a trio. I will be featured as an octopus, meaning that all my limbs are going to be working: pushing buttons, and playing guitar, and slapping pedals and keyboards. And I think I'm crazy enough that I think people should bring their instruments. And I think they should play Pressure with me.
Crazy? Maybe. But beautiful? Likely. And inviting? Absolutely.
I might have to go, myself.