Vocalist Luciana Souza is the daughter of a poet and a musician, and her second recording was titled The Poems of Elizabeth Bishop and Other Songs. Her latest, The Book of Longing, then, is no surprise. Souza has written music for a set of poems by Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Christina Rossetti, and herself. If that sounds intimidating—after all, poetry is something so many of us were taught to find terrifying or impenetrable in school and doesn’t usually come with catchy hooks or choruses—so be it. This music is not a set of pop songs. But it is infused with a gorgeous, meditative core of desire and delicate sensuality.
Cohen’s poem “The Book of Longing” becomes Souza’s “The Book”, a long-form melody that smooths out the short, choppy lines of the poem, giving them an undulating, circular beauty. “I sailed like a swan / I sank like a rock / But time is long gone / Past my laughing stock / My page was too white / My ink was too thin / The day wouldn’t write / What the night penciled in,” she sings to the swaying, floating accompaniment of Scott Colley’s acoustic bass and Chico Pinheiro’s jazz guitar, with the lightest hand percussion nudging things into a pulse. Souza’s voice, flutey but full, often just slightly gauzy rather than precise and bell-like, puts the lines across as pastels—gentle but not casual, rich in the feeling of a story.
When adapting the words of a famous, canonized poet like Emily Dickinson, Souza demonstrates her compositional skill. While Cohen’s “Book” was written, for all intents and purposes, like a song lyric, Dickinson’s work is more idiosyncratic. “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” uses an insistent, strummed pattern from Colley’s bass, giving the opening of each stanza a sense of momentum, which then dissolves into a more impressionistic section ending in a slowed, up-and-down melody that puts your ear on every syllable of the last line. Souza gives Dickinson’s peculiar form a musical structure that allows us to take it almost as a pop song.
The album’s final song, “Remember”, is an adaptation of a 19th-century sonnet by Christina Rossetti. Souza honors the form by giving each stanza a proper breath at its conclusion. She has built a melody that frames each four-line stanza of iambic pentameter in a proper arc, but then Souza provides a yearning harmonic change for the last two lines, and the effect is devastating. The narrator of the poem sings to a lover that she is reluctantly leaving (by death), suggesting how she might be remembered, but in the last two lines asserts with a pure heart that it would be “better by far you should forget and smile / Than that you should remember and be sad.”
It seems important to note that Souza is a beautiful lyricist as well as composer. Her own “These Things” is the first song on The Book of Longing, and it is perhaps the most affecting. “These are the days of long, long nights / These are the tables we set out to feast / These are the flags we wave” she sings over a lovely, pulsing set of descending patterns. It is a list poem that sets out our rituals, our hopes, and our obligations in a relationship, which accumulate poetically until the song reveals its real subject with a single line: “I don’t know how to get back to you.” Yes, of course, it is another song of yearning and possible loss. The music—tied to the words organically—told us that from the start.
Souza’s bossa nova roots are more a dusting of flavor here than the main course, but there is an understatement throughout Book that keeps that Brazilian style in mind. “Daybreak” may be the most overtly Brazilian of the arrangements, with Souza singing many long syllables over the gentle, syncopated bossa groove. She allows each sound to swell and fade sensually, ending with the phrase “You stay / I go / Stay / Go” in long, cool notes of ironic detachment.
In fact, nothing on The Book of Longing is truly detached. Every line, every note is imbued with the power of feeling expressed through compression rather than explosion. Souza is a musician capable of exuberance, certainly, as her daring, often virtuosic recordings of duets with various guitarists showed. On The Book of Longing she occasionally gives the band a chance to cook (such as on “Night Song”, a setting for another Leonard Cohen poem). But even when the band is in this mode, Souza is pulling back, giving us more by giving us not less, but more art, more care, more concentration.
It’s worth mention that Souza seems everywhere lately, appearing on other recordings produced by Larry Klein (her husband and producer of The Book of Longing) and appearing on about half the tracks of the new Raising Our Voice by the Yellowjackets. She sounds great there, singing wordless vocals as well as lyrics and perfectly at home with a band that plays in a much more mainstream style. But on The Book of Longing, Souza is doing more than making exuberant, skillful music.
With her latest release, Luciana Souza plumbs the depths of a certain kind of longing. In the alchemical combination of words and music here, she threads a needle through desire, pain, and acceptance. It is the most sublime recording of the season, not kid stuff, and a work of art fine enough to be her very best.