If you’re the sort of music fan who is always looking for the next great distinctive voice, you might be interested in Shara Worden, whose unique vocals are the most obvious draw to her work as My Brightest Diamond. If you’ve seen a Sufjan Stevens show recently (a fair bet these days, you scallywags), you’ll probably recognize Worden as the voice that pinned you to the back of the bar during the opening set. Far from the whispery, understated delivery of Stevens (with whom she also sings and shares a label), Workman’s style is operatic and decidedly emotive. The songs on her debut, Bring Me the Workhorse, are full of peaks and valleys, crescendos and denouements, a work of high drama and ambition.
Opener “Something of an End” contains a color spectrum’s worth of contrasting dynamics, and provides something of a litmus test for first-time listeners. If you can hang with Worden’s purposeful stuttering and alveolar trill on “C-c-c-crrrrashing” without rolling your eyes, you’ll likely enjoy the rest of the proceedings. If not, you might think her just another willowy freak worshipping at the altars of Tori Amos and Björk. But in that case, I think you’d be making a mistake. My Brightest Diamond certainly follows precedents set by Amos and Kate Bush, among other notables, but Bring Me the Workhorse is not the work of a fawning idolater. Worden’s got theatrical prowess cultivated by years of classical and operatic study, as well as the cojones to name-drop childhood influences like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in addition to more “acceptable” guides as Beth Gibbons and Nina Simone. So when the fiery “Golden Star” trails out into the sulty, noir “Gone Away”, there’s intrinsic trust between listener and performer born from the latter knowing her shit, as opposed to aping it.
Further testament to how confident and mature Worden’s songs are is the number of lyrics that describe their own songs. No sooner do I attempt to describe “Gone Away” as lonely than Worden herself sings the word. “Golden Star” erupts from an elastic, indie-rock thang into explosive bursts of symphonic bliss. Explosive? “Everything is suddenly exploding” Worden repeats at the song’s climax, twisting the last word in so many suggestive ways.
As near to wild and unhinged as her voice can seem at moments, Worden is a deceptively careful and exacting artist, building and releasing tension at specific moments for maximum effect. The appropriately titled “Freak Out” starts out with seemingly random tuning and percussion before coalescing into a sinister, repetitive groove. “I think we should jump on the piano / No one’s looking / We could tear his heart out / We could tear his owwwwoooooot”, Worden sings before the chorus “freaks out”, wiggling and spasming with strange, off-kilter harmonies. The deliberateness of the performance makes it a little silly, a modern-dance representation of freaking out as opposed to realistic, saw-it-on-the-subway freaking out, but I’m not positive the silliness is unintentional. At least I hope it isn’t.
“The Good Guy & the Bad Guy” builds slowly, “Sometimes when I tell the story of you / I make you out to be the bad guy / And though it’s true sometimes you’re the bad guy / You’re still mine”. The melody sinks on that last line, Worden dropping her register as if to intone something potentially dangerous, yet complexly romantic. “Sometimes when I paint the picture / It’s easier just to remember / The awful things you said / Than what you chose to do with legitimate need”. These wonderfully direct, true-in-the-best sense lines, apart from fitting the torch ballad mood like a blood-red evening dress, unmistakably illustrate My Brightest Diamond’s method: the intersection of skillful direction and passionate conveyance.