[12 November 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Laura Nyro is one of those odd mystical creatures who seems to float somewhere above the cannon of popular music culture. Considered an icon amongst her devotees, without ever achieving mainstream chart success, she was a prolific musician and songwriter up until the release of Mother’s Spiritual, which induced the artist into a nine-year recording hiatus.
As a solo artist, Nyro was notorious for her wounded jazzy tone, which would often fluctuate effortlessly between instances of restrained soulfulness and bouts of unbridled, some would even say hysterical, frenzy.
One of David Geffen’s early musical discoveries, Nyro was nurtured under his leadership, producing mature releases like New York Tendaberry at the ripe young age of just 22. When commercial success failed her, Nyro’s management had her compose songs for other artists, which were often warmly welcomed by the populace. Although she couldn’t read a note of music, Nyro managed to pen classics such as, Barbara Streisand’s “Stoney End”, the 5th Dimension’s “Blowing Away”, Blood Sweat & Tears’ “And When I Die”, and Three Dog Night’s “Eli’s Coming”, to name but a few.
Now, nearly 12 years after her untimely death from cancer at the age of 49, Laura Nyro’s eighth studio album Mother’s Spiritual has been re-released by Iconoclassic Records for public consumption. Originally released in 1984, these songs have rarely been so accessible. It was considered a critical failure at the time. Fans and critics alike criticized Nyro for assuming a restrained sound that many believed paled in comparison to the adventurousness of her previous works, which found Nyro breezing effortlessly between soul (Gonna Take A Miracle, produced with Labelle) and multi-layered Jazz opulence (Eli and The Thirteenth Confession).
In retrospect, such judgements seem unsophisticated and futile in their appraisal. Like any artist, Nyros’s perspectives were changing. Her thematic passion with amorous desire is here replaced with a political nod to motherhood, environmentalism, and mild-mannered feminism. Slow and wistful songs are driven by nothing but a piano and Nyro’s sensual voice. It should come as no surprise that the mother of a two-year old, as she was at the time, would begin a record with the breezy “To A Child”. Here, Nyro untangles simple post-modern analysis—“What is life? Did you read about it in a magazine?”—with the cloying and clunky, ‘I’m a poet, without a poem, and you are my child’.
But despite her lyrics’ newfound syrupy connotations, Nyro somehow manages to sound every bit sincere. When she whispers, “child, I am here to stand by you”, one can’t help but be taken in under her enchanting spell. Elsewhere on the release, we find the singer rifling through the quiet jamboree of “The Right to Vote”, where she professes, “Thank you sirs for the right to vote / bet you didn’t know / I had a voice in my throat”. Listening to Nyro’s opinionated lyrics retrospectively, it is easy to see why her fan base shunned this album. 1984 was a time when the world was on the brink of mass apocalyptic fear, spurred by the rising of the AIDS pandemic. As panic made way to bigotry, and subcultures grew increasingly polarized, one assumes that there was little room for Nyro’s serene hippie-like approach to love, peace, and understanding.
Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy on this record. “Late for Love”, for example, is a fragrant jazz number that wistfully cajoles the listener with its flirtatious “oohs”. On other occasions, Nyro mixes her subdued politics with a sense of humor, like in “Man in the Moon”, where she calls for an astronaut to “melt the arctic beat / in her breast”. Midway through the record, this contemplative absurdity is notched up by the upbeat numbers “Talk to Green Tree” and “Sophie”, which finds Nyro diverging from her simple piano to the more layered soundscapes of her previous works.
Ultimately though, Mother’s Spiritual is a record filled with quiet refrains and sedate whispers. Many of Nyro’s fans will hunger for the brazen desperation of her earlier releases, but for some, Mother’s Spiriual will prove a warm and beguiling introduction to the artist’s catalogue.