If I had anything witty to say, it would automatically be over-shadowed by half or more of whatever Dessa has to say. Even my best material is only different than what she might write, not better. So, if outdoing a half-assed music blogger is an accomplishment, Dessa deserves accolades. As it is, she outdoes me by waking up in the morning. That’s all it takes. But that’s all about her writing, her verbal fluency. Does it fit into music? It does. More often than not.
So, who/what is Dessa anyway? She’s the person pictured to left/above/below (who knows where it ends up). Please ignore where the rapt audience members hands are and just notice that they are rapt. That’s because Dessa is entrancing, visually, aurally, lexically, and many other adverbs you can find. Dessa writes (three books so far), she’s competed in slam poetry (winning on her first try), records on her own (this is her third album) and as part of alternative hip-hop collective Doomtree (another three albums), performs with the Boy Sopranos (which has no boys and one soprano), teaches (recently at the McNally School of Music), and, yes, wakes up every morning (maybe sleeping in at times). She sings, writes, raps. She’s smarter than … well … a lot of people and more creative than … well … a lot of other people. Oh, crap, I’m sounding like her audience looks, but, trust me, my hands are fully on the keyboard/mouse.
In her first two albums and single EP, her style was of a mid-tempo club singer with poetic understandable sections of rap. Any defiance or intensity came first from her lyrics or vocal style with the music only enhancing or coloring the emotion. She’s talked about feeling reluctant to sing, for fear of being put into the hip-hop role of the woman who sings the hook … and stays out of the way. In her solo material, she gets to define her own territory. She can sing, rap, or whatever serves her vision and her songs. Previously, a common theme were stories of childhood vulnerability and it’s adult consequences. Perhaps it’s natural for her current work to emphasize what she is now, a self-made woman with vulnerabilities that she’s strong enough to discuss. She doesn’t claim perfection, she claims herself, her identity.
This album spans a wider territory than before. Here, she adds in more electronic dance music (EDM) production at times. In the middle are new songs like the old, compelling stories of emotions or lifes in a mid-tempo thought-provoking songs. At the other extreme, she brings in more orchestral sounds and makes perfect use of Jessy Greene and Aby Wolf. Acoustic guitar and keyboards feature throughout most of the album. When replaced by electronic dance production, as in “Call Off Your Ghost”, the fundamental song gets lost in the clash between energetic rhythm and more contemplative vocals. The result is a heartfelt mellow R&B style song on a frantic train platform, not the best combo. However, “Warsaw” gets the balance right even with added disco flavors (your ears can perceive tastes!). Better yet, “The Lamb” is filled with haunting defiance and electronic production that adds just the right propulsion to the spectacular vocals.
Her past style comes through in “Skeleton Key” although I swear it starts out as the Beatles “Day in the Life”. OK, I mildly swear. “Beekeeper” brings out another occasional theme from her past work where discusses the lives of working people, both literal (a beekeeper) and generally.
Lyrically, the album is golden, like the very descriptive phrase of an (ex-)lover: “mouthful of your smoke” from “Man I Knew”. Or, better yet, “Dear Marie” shows the vulnerable honesty of her lyrics as she tells a story. Is it true? Who knows, but it feels really. Consider:
You said that I could leave you lonely in a crowded room
By smiling bright for everyone but you
And I’m embarrassed to confess it, but it all rings true
You said that charm of mine was easy to abuse
The album includes some of the strut she shows in her work with Doomtree in “Fighting Fish”, a song that feels instantly comfortable as if you’ve liked it for a decade already.
The songs themselves stand alone, but Dessa put some obvious thought into the order of the album as shown by the spectacular sequence, late in the album of “It’s Only Me” and “Sound the Bells”. “It’s Only Me” tells of a relationship on the edge between intimacy and breaking up. The singing flows so naturally and fluidly along with the lyrics. Chills. I had chills listening to the arresting lyrics sung over a small orchestral score. “Sound the Bells” drops the orchestral complexity, leaving mostly just a piano, adding in backing vocals from Boy Sopranos collaborators Jessy Greene and Aby Wolf. One of the best two songs sequences ever.
Dessa may not be for everyone. She sits between several genres prone to fussiness about what gets included under the label, but almost anyone can appreciate the sincerity, the creativity, and sheer poetry she puts into each song. She is the real deal.