Hope and hardship are so inexorably linked that they might as well be the same word. Hope is like a fragile pane of glass that separates us from the harsh reality of our lives, periodically shattered, leaving us torn and miserable. We’d be fine if it hadn’t been there in the first place, but could we have endured so long with out it? Best to bandage ourselves and and hope it won’t happen again. “So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut might say. Nodding her head in agreement would be K Records’ Mirah, whose fourth solo album of grandly swelling sorrow, (a)spera, parenthetically combines the Latin words for hope and hardship (spera, and aspera, respectively). Those Italians know their stuff.
Over the past decade, Mirah has staked out a corner of the indie world for herself as a tender poet of heartbreak, vulnerability, and isolation whose work is always as musically compelling as it is personally poignant. “Cold, Cold Water”, the lead single from her 2001 debut, Advisory Committee, is a stirring mix of strings, thundering horse-hoof percussion, and breathy vocals that paints Mirah as a avenging cowgirl of love, both figuratively and literally—she’s astride a horse, twirling a lasso above her head in the seven-inch’s artwork.
She hasn’t changed much in the ensuing years, much to this fan’s delight. She’s still singing about love and loss, in that same adorably vulnerable voice. The booming percussion is still courtesy of Phil Elvrum, who forever proved the emotional impact a drum can have in his previous life as the Microphones. The producer of just a third of the album’s tracks, he shares production duties with Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Sufjan Stevens) and Adam Selzer (M.Ward). Not every song can be an epic piece of mind-blowing pop, and these others add a delicate touch to a few tender numbers.
The album notes don’t specify which three tracks Elvrum produced here, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say the three thundering masterpieces of theatrical pop are his work: “The Forest”, “Generosity”, and “Country of the Future”. Regardless, they are all wholly engrossing, transportive specimens of pop production. “The Forest”, a back-to-nature fantasia, features a war drums/high brass/electric guitar juxtaposition that sounds like something RZA might have made for Uma Thurman to slaughter 88 assassins over. “Generosity”, the album’s opener, is a mournful ode to the limits of giving, accompanied by furious violins, that builds to a crescendo that’ll shake your ear buds out.
“Country of the Future” brings the famously shy Mirah out of her shell, recasting her as something of a passionate flaminco singer. “When you look at the stars at night / Remember, oh love, it’s my love that makes them shine so bright”, she coos over rolling snares and piccacato violins. Just as love transports those under its sway to their own world, the music here takes us on a little journey south of the border.
The musical marriage of Mirah and Elvrum is one of those rare perfect meeting of the minds—Jay-Z and Kanye, Butch Vig and Kurt Cobain, Phil Spector and… basically anyone who can sing. One could easily imagine Mirah being just another songwriter, singing turgid ballads about loneliness over an acoustic guitar (and indeed there is the occasional disturbing flash of this in her work), but through the intelligent production of Elvrum, and indeed, some of the other producers on (a)spera, she is able to set her thoughts upon soaring mountains of musical genius. She, and we, should be very grateful.
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