Lila Downs seventh studio album Pecados Y Milagros / Sins and Miracles is a beautiful mix of originally penned songs mixed with Downs’ interpretation of traditional Mexican folk ballads. Such a mix is reflected in the music; from plaintive, haunting lyrical performances “Fallaste Corazon / Failed Heart” to upbeat, Marachi infused tracks like the opener “Mezcalito / Little Drop of Mezcal” with its refrain of “Drop drop drop little drop of mescal”.
Pecados Y Milagros was conceived as something of a mixed media project by Downs. Accompanying each song is a specially commissioned retablo, a Latin American devotional painting derived from traditional Catholic church art. In Mexico, retablo art has become known as ex-votos a hybrid of Catholic iconography and indigenous artistry. While the artwork is reproduced in the booklet that comes with the album, the original paintings are currently on display at MUNAL – Mexico City’s fine arts museum, where visitors are treated to a sonic visual art installation. One can only imagine the beauty of seeing these painting in situ, accompanied by the music they were inspired by. Clearly a woman with a broad interest in art, it is the cultural roots of her homeland on display here as Downs seeks to reflect upon where Mexico has come from, and where it may go.
Born to a Mixtec mother and Scottish-American father, Downs’ music reflects this cross cultural upbringing with the brass driven bands, drums and accordion of cumbia, mournful bachatas and rock guitars all thrown into the pot and stirred by a smoky, sultry, pleading vocal performance. Downs’ voice lifts you into the warm Mexican thermals and lets you drift, looking down on patchwork fields of bright yellow corn maize, workers toiling under the bright fierce sun, stopping only for a cerveza or two to quench their thirst. I can just feel Mexico pouring out of this album.
Following opener “Mezcalito” comes “Tu Carcel / Your Prison” written by the huge selling Latin American star, Marco Antonio Solis, a slow lament of love lost, before “Zapata Se Queda / Zapata Stays” kicks in with an electronic pulse as the narrator remembers workers revolutionary hero Zapata. “Vamonos / Let’s Go”, written by one of Mexico’s most venerated musicians, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, is all accordion and drums which conjures up images of the señor and señorita of the story waltzing around the dance floor before eloping. “Cucurrucucu Paloma / Cucurrucucu Dove” showcases the full range of Downs’ voice, rolling the words with that beautiful Spanish inflection, before soaring into an almost operatic end to the song. Spine tingling.
“Le Reyna Del Inframundo / The Queen of the Underworld” and “Fallaste Corazon / Failed Heart” are the centrepieces of the album. The former is the tale of the criminal boss, her ultimate reward for living this life. The latter is the sound out track on the album. A plaintive, emotional and passionate rendition of the Cuco Sanchez song, Downs’ voice, backed by trumpet and acoustic guitar, cuts you to the bone as she sings “Cursed heart / I’m glad that you now suffer”. Ouch. While nothing on the second half of the album can quite match the intensity of this song, Downs turns towards a more spiritual and religious mood. As she has said of the album “I needed the sacred part of life, something spiritual to accompany me and give me strength”. Songs such as “Dios Nunca Muere / God Never Dies”, “Pecadora / Sinner” and “La Cruz De Olvido / Cross of Oblivion” clearly reflect this yearning, but these songs are not seeking to preach or praise, merely to highlight the role that religion, spirituality and oral history has played in the shaping of Mexico and its rich culture. It is fitting then, that the album closes on Downs’ reading of a 9th Century Oaxacan Mass, the area of Mexico Downs was born in, “Misa Oaxaquena / Oaxacan Mass”. The bells toll, choral voices sing of “A town you wanted before you / A town here cheering you”, the brass accompaniment echoing New Orleans spirituals. This is a song not in honour of God but of the unbending spirit of a people.
Lila Downs’ love of Mexico, of its characters, its stories, its cultures, its sins and miracles, is clearly evident. Downs has made a simply beautiful album that does justice to her country. Never hiding from the complex realities of modern day Mexico, Downs updates the folk traditions of her past for our contemporary times, interleaving her own compositions, all of which will no doubt, in time, be added to that corpus. This is Lila Downs finest album and one of the best Latin American albums of recent years. Lila is embarking on a tour to promote the album, across the USA, and you should get there. You need to hear this album.