The young singer-songwriter known as Al Spx might be using a stage name to maintain her anonymity, but she won’t be able to keep her identity under wraps for long if Cold Specks’ first album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion is an indication of what she’s capable of. As the story goes, the 24-year-old Spx took on a pseudonym so as not to embarrass a family that frowned upon her chosen career path and left her suburban Toronto home for London to work with some veteran musician types after her ad-hoc recordings piqued their interest. Making, well, a name for herself in a short period of time, Spx isn’t likely to go back into some kind of indie witness protection program, not with an attention-grabbing performance on Jools Holland under her belt and word-of-mouth spreading on both sides of the Atlantic.
Indeed, it’s hard not to notice that I Predict a Graceful Expulsion stands out as a stunning debut effort, not just because of Spx’s one-of-a-kind songwriting perspective, but also thanks to a level of musicianship that’s more proficient and wise than you’d expect from someone with her limited experience. Maybe it’s her backstory that’s garnered almost all the publicity up to now, but Graceful Expulsion wouldn’t be nearly as interesting without her preternatural gifts to express herself as a performer. That’s obvious on a number like “Heavy Hands”, which brings to mind Cat Power’s Chan Marshall in her prime, as Spx’s raw, soul-searching voice is lifted by plucked guitar and melancholy fiddling. On “Winter Solstice”, Spx digs deep into herself in order to reach out to her listeners, with her rich vocals growing more and more resonant as the instrumentation builds steadily to simmering piano chords, rising string movements, and choir-like background singing. Showing a deft, intuitive touch for tender orchestration, Spx is able to draw out the drama in an organic way.
While Spx herself describes her approach as “doom soul”, there’s something to her music that parts the dark clouds that have come with her predicament, as if she seeks and finds transcendence by delving further into what she’s gone through. Even though it’s marked with harrowing, self-examining lines like “You cut me open / Just to see what’s within”, there’s a juxtaposition of moods on “Elephant Head” that expresses both an ambivalence and a sense of anticipation for what the future holds. So when Spx sings the lyric that makes up the album’s title — “I predict a graceful expulsion” — she does so understanding the weight of what those words mean, at the same time that she sees an opportunity to shed her emotional baggage for good, as the angelic backing vocals seem to suggest. With a searching, redemptive tone set by crisp percussion and a stirring string arrangement, the ashes-to-ashes sentiments of “Holland” don’t come off pessimistic or fatalistic (“Into dust we will all return”) — instead, they find a commonality in the most fundamental of experiences we all share, which Spx conveys in the chorus of “We are many / We are many / We are dust”.
If anything, many of Spx’s most memorable refrains come not from a first-person singular perspective, but from a first-person plural one. So even though one might safely assume that Graceful Expulsion is autobiographical, its stories aren’t really Spx’s alone. That’s because Spx connects her own trials and tribulations to what others have endured, seeking community through her intimate music rather than singer-songwriter isolation. Hers is not just an individual narrative, no matter how particular Spx’s bio is, like when she yearns for a collective catharsis on the single “Blank Maps”, wailing, “We were good children / Darling, let it out”. Even more compelling is the album’s most fleshed-out number, the slow-building “Steady”, on which Spx comes off like she’s sick and tired of getting caught up in her own head as she conjures up a rallying cry with the chorus, “We have caught fire / The night is ours”.
Sure, some of Spx’s lyrics can be oblique, falling back on the natural gravitas of her voice to get her self-reflecting mood across. And there are times when her folk-tinged sound can meander a bit when she’s not pushing her rich compositions to their full and logical development. Then again, it can’t be easy to stay so intense all the time when you’re facing your private demons in such a public way. All in all, I Predict a Graceful Expulsion is a pretty finished product for a work-in-progress by someone who’s still growing into the kind of artist and person she wants to be.