Scale and perspective: These are the dual concepts that inform Mirah’s craft, that form the aesthetic basis of every album she’s made. She manipulates them with the deftness and sleight-of-hand deception of a great photographer, creating music that’s big and complex and ambitious but sounds remarkably small and intimate and quiet. It’s a conceit she employed on her breakthrough record, Advisory Committee, a pop album that somehow sounded baroque and minimalist at the same time, layering pounding drums and furious strings on top of each other in elaborate arrangements but somehow sounding like Mirah was playing by herself in a little room, for an audience of only one. Ever since then, she’s been trying to whittle that aesthetic down to its purest, simplest form; on her last album, C’mon Miracle, she scale things down on the production side and focused more on traditional singer-songwriter trappings, resulting in an album that was just as intimate but a bit less striking than Comittee.
But on (A)spera, she strikes just the right balance. An album marked by the kind of wisdom and careful craft that only come from years of chasing the same muse down its crooked path, Mirah’s latest is a mature manifestation of her sound, an elegant and sophisticated pop album with a rich, layered production that somehow still sounds like a small, sparse singer-songwriter album. And that’s because, in some ways, it is; Mirah has grown into a songwriter of immense talent, and her soft, girlish voice has developed a warmth and a depth that make her singing the hypnotic presence that holds the disc together.
Meanwhile, the production is sleek and subtle, but also colorful and compelling– an ambiguity that fits a singer/songwriter who has dealt in dichotomies and paradoxes for so long. On many of these songs, she’s singing against a backdrop of strings, reeds, and brass, or perhaps just some rumbling low-end noise or gently-strummed acoustic instruments. She draws from a rich palette– would you believe that “Country of the Future” begins with a galloping faux-calypso beat before escalating into a carnival-band mambo, or that “The Forest” builds from electric guitars and horns into a frenzy of tribal drumming?– yet these diverse instruments and sounds are employed discerningly, sometimes only offering a hint, a sonic signifier to suggest a particular mood or style, rather than being allowed to overtake the song. Thus, each track feels constructed with careful craft, with arrangements that are deceptively simple but still giving each track its own distinct feel, as if each song is a world unto itself, or its own scene in a movie.
Mirah’s lyrics, like her music, deal in complex dichotomies, and though they’re crafted in such a way that their ornate sophistication sounds very simple. Blending concerns that are personal, political, and spiritual, Mirah crafts a song cycle about a love that’s been corrupted, tainted, and distorted– a love where need has turned to greed, desire into selfishness. In “Education,” she sings that “love may be an economy”– a frightening prospect to hear during the midst of an historic depression!– and much of the album finds her singing of love in terms of commerce, of give and take. But it’s not necessarily about relationships– “Generosity,” the opening track about one lover taking advantage of another’s giving spirit– could just as easily be a metaphor for our relationship with the environment; indeed, naturalistic language crops up repeatedly. “The Forest” is a primal, mythic story about a people that enter a promised land only to abuse its plentiful resources, and it may or may not be about the natural world, or about our culture as a whole, or simply a metaphorical, cautionary tale about greed.
Her words don’t tackle big issues so much as caress them, considering them from different angles and in different lights, and she brings to her lyrics a precision of language, a mastery of imagery, and a knack for allusion that make each line, each choice of word, feel like it was carefully planned and polished, the songs playing off of each other thematically, the whole album building on itself and exploring themes with an uncommon depth and profundity. And in much the same way, the music is thoughtful, methodical, meant to be savored and carefully considered rather than listened to haphazardly or inattentively. It makes for a pop album that is at once moving to the head and the heart, a densely meaningful and coldly imaginative work that finds common ground between craft and inspiration. And it’s an album that only Mirah could have made, a mature statement from an artist who is comfortable with herself and her gifts, enough that she’s less interested neither in a lazy rehash or a flashy reinvention, but, rather, a deepening and broadening of a sound that she’s taken years to cultivate. She’s mastered her powers, but the gleam of adventure is still in her eyes, as this fine, remarkable album attests.