Michael League (2021) | GroundUp Music
Photo: Courtesy of GroundUp Music

Michael League Is in a League of His Own with ‘So Many Me’

Michael League’s pop fusion So Many Me blends catchy hooks and conventional song forms with his characteristic jazz fusion harmonies and intricate grooves.

So Many Me
Michael League
GroundUp
25 June 2021

Michael League has never been one to sit still. Although he’s best known for founding the Grammy-winning, genre-defying instrumental fusion band Snarky Puppy, his activities also include leading the global music group Bokanté, running the GroundUp record label, and collaborating with musicians as varied as Esperanza Spalding, David Crosby, and Kirk Franklin. Having spent the past several years writing, arranging, performing, and producing music with other artists, League was left with virtually no time to work on a solo record of his own. That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic.

Finding himself quarantined at his apartment in Northern Spain and with touring and recording commitments postponed, the lockdown presented League with a rare opportunity to focus on the debut solo album he first began planning in 2015. The result is So Many Me, a unique pop fusion record that seamlessly blends catchy hooks and conventional song forms with League’s characteristic jazz fusion harmonies and intricate grooves. A solo album in the truest sense of the word, League performs everything on the record: a vast array of instruments spanning Moog synthesizers to the Moroccan bendir, as well as his first foray as a lead vocalist. 

Rather than exploring many distinct styles on the album, League instead synthesizes his influences into a more coherent, consistent soundworld. ‘Synthesize’ is a good word to describe the record in more ways than one, as it is laden with synth pads, synth bass, and stacked vocal harmonies that take on a synthetic quality of their own. In lieu of a drum kit, the album’s synth-heavy production is offset by interlocking grooves played on a variety of Turkish, Moroccan, and Kurdish percussion instruments.

The distinct combination of synths and hand percussion establishes a dense, dark atmosphere that evokes such disparate influences as the Talking Heads, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Gabriel, and Sufjan Steven’s electronic pop. This sonic throughline creates a sense of consistency, albeit sometimes at the expense of variety.

There is remarkable restraint in the songwriting here, especially for an artist renowned for lengthy instrumental jams. Each of So Many Me’s 11 tracks are relatively concise – none of them passing the five-minute mark – and solos are few and far between. This was a conscious attempt to write a pop record. As League says in an interview with Atwood Magazine, “[Pop is] not a dirty word, you know, it’s my favorite music – it’s the ability to write a clear, catchy song that grooves and reaches you quickly, but also has lyrics that are well thought out and are thoughtful and challenge ideas.”

But to call So Many Me pop is not to say that it’s overly simple; the songs are full of the clever harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns so prevalent in League’s writing. It’s a testament to his songwriting ability that he can write such catchy songs over irregular time signatures and unconventional chord progressions.

The album’s lyrics broach heavy themes that resonate in the current moment: isolation, depression, anxiety, death, and political turmoil, to name a few. Take the lead single, the piano-led “Right Where I Fall” (accompanied by a disturbing, Dalí-inspired music video). The chorus captures the feeling of being overwhelmed and suffocated by depression, with League’s mournful vocal harmonies singing “If I’m on the way down / If you love me at all / Leave me right where I fall” over a spiraling chord progression.

“In Your Mouth”, on the other hand, is a more aggressive piece driven by a powerful Guembri riff that’s buttressed by a wall of almost industrial-sounding percussion. League tells Bass Magazine that the song is about “the weight we bear as citizens of nations whose leaders foment fear, hate, and division.”

League demonstrates that he can hold his own as a lead vocalist – even if it sometimes feels like he’s hiding behind layers of his own voice and is somewhat buried in the mix. The multi-tracked vocals perfectly suit the album’s synthetic sound world, but they occasionally mask the very human themes that underpin the lyrics (this concealment is perhaps reflected in the album art’s masks). The rare moments featuring untreated, single-tracked vocals convey a touching intimacy and vulnerability that could have been further explored. 

Although the album’s distinct take on pop is generally successful, there are times when the music feels somewhat forced and unconvincing. The pulsing synth progression in “I Wonder Who You Know” perhaps leans too heavily on 1980s new wave influences (despite an interesting metrical structure), whereas the melodies to “Best of All Time” and “Ever the Actor” come across as slightly contrived. These aren’t bad songs by any means, but So Many Me is at its best when League strikes that fine balance between his pop proclivities and his more experimental tendencies. 

Fortunately, the album is full of tracks that do just that, including “Sentinel Species”, “Me, Like You”, and “Fireside”. The closing track, “The Last Friend”, is a hauntingly beautiful piece about death that’s built around a gentle Lydian piano line and ethereal vocal harmonies. The song is a perfect close to the album and may be League’s most moving composition to date. (In the album’s ending moments, we hear League’s footsteps as he leaves the studio and closes the door, a departure that recalls the end of Fleet Foxes’ Crack-Up from 2017.)

So Many Me is a compelling debut featuring expertly-crafted songs and immaculate production. Some of the writing is reminiscent of League’s previous work with Snarky Puppy, Bokanté, and Bill Laurance (“Since You’ve Been By” bears a striking resemblance to Laurance’s “Swag Times” but this is a unique and rewarding addition to his vast catalogue. League may feel most comfortable when he’s collaborating with others, but this album is proof that he’s more than capable of going it alone.

RATING 8 / 10
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