Esperanza Spalding’s enthusiasm for bundling her releases with attention-grabbing concepts — like writing and recording an entire album in an uninterrupted 77-hour livestream, or dedicating each song on her new LP, 12 Little Spells, to a different body part — might make it seem like she’s attempting to mask some shortcoming in the actual music. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. The Grammy-winning bassist/vocalist/composer, a former child prodigy steeped in classical and jazz but bounded by neither, is well over a decade into one of the most fruitful and strikingly original careers in contemporary pop.
Excellent prior efforts like 2017’s Exposure and 2016’s character-driven Emily’s D+Evolution combined sturdy hooks and bold idiosyncrasy in a way that seemed comparable only to fellow genre-of-one artists like Joni Mitchell, Björk or Spalding’s friend and collaborator Prince. Her new LP favors a slightly dreamier aesthetic (see the gorgeous, overture-like opener “12 Little Spells,” dedicated to the thoracic spine). But there’s still music here that will make your head spin with its exquisite intergenre oddity, like the prog-meets-pop-meets-spoken-word mini opus “The Longing Deep Down” (an “abdominal portal” ode on which she sings, “It’s fucking hard to be longing/And at the same time feel your own belonging”) or “Dancing the Animal,” an ultra-mathy art-funk meditation on the era of the cloud written for the mind/brain.
As with Spalding’s earlier albums, the conceptual hook of 12 Little Spells only hints at the radically inventive nature of the songs themselves.