On this weird and wondrous new album, Spellling lures us deep into an enchanted forest, brimming with colour and life.
For Chrystia Cabral, better known by her playful pseudonym, Spellling, music is eternal, ethereal, organic, woven throughout nature. ‘I hear the musical words / in the arc of a rainbow, / in the spider’s harp,’ she sings on the final track of her magnificent third LP, The Turning Wheel. Nature – its beauty, its nurturing powers, its endangerment at the hands of humanity – is at the heart of this lush, rapturous opera of an album.
Retaining the bold experimentalism but abandoning the disturbing eeriness that defined her previous album, 2019’s Mazy Fly, Spellling holds nothing back. She combines her Kate Bush-style vocals with a symphonic richness and a knack for stirring, powerful melodies, building magical, dynamic set pieces with a sense of scale and drama befitting of stage musicals and Disney films.
Right from the haunted, swirling introduction of opening track, ‘Little Deer’, Cabral’s music paints a strikingly vivid picture. With its sweeping, orchestral grandeur and effortlessly melodic hooks, the song sets the stage for the rest of the album and articulates its core thesis, namely that we are one with nature, unified by life and reunited in death: ‘Little deer will marry me, / tender lovers of the earth, / turn us back into the dirt.’
Death lurks in the shadows throughout the album, not as a hostile threat but as an inextricable aspect of the natural world that Cabral depicts with such exquisite detail. On ‘Magic Act’ she welcomes death peacefully, pleading, ‘take my body, make my brain a garden’. Even on ‘Emperor with an Egg’, her enraptured ode to an emperor penguin, Cabral senses the presence of death. Gliding strings mimic the fluid grace of the penguin through water, but the song concludes with the ominous warning, ‘I can feel a leopard seal’.
‘Awaken’, on the other hand, is resiliently hopeful in the face of impending climate catastrophe. A hymnal call to action, the track asks us to reconnect with nature, not through death this time, but in order to prevent it. ‘All we want is right here,’ Spellling implores us, ‘all we need and more.’ But the song closes with explosions that seem to suggest a grim future.
As rich and vivid as Cabral’s depictions of nature are, they never obscure the very plain human emotion at the heart of her music. Second track ‘Always’, with its shimmering, poignant loneliness, is a prime example. Cabral’s rousing chords evoke both pain and hope as she confesses, ‘I always wanted to be a lover, / but I can’t take the pain.’ More ambiguous, ‘The Future’ works both as a tale of star-crossed lovers and a nostalgic elegy on what humanity has lost, as Spellling laments being severed from the past, stuck living in the future.
Delving into Cabral’s childhood memories, ‘Boys at School’ is the album’s dark, cinematic centrepiece. From this point on, the tone changes. Where the first half, titled ‘Above’ in the liner notes, shines with uplifting, theatrical glory, the latter half of the track list, ‘Below’, is more mysterious, more intimate and more experimental. A storm begins to brew on the foreboding ‘Legacy’, before truly bursting forth on ‘Queen of Wands’, a sort of surreal, space-age ballet, with classical piano and strings giving way to a driving electronic groove and snaking synth lines. Using sounds that register both as dated and futuristic, as if ripped straight out of an 1980s Doctor Who episode, Spellling maintains this supernatural spookiness through ‘Magic Act’, before she unleashes chaos at the end of penultimate track ‘Revolution’.
It’s fair to say that these looser, stranger songs may initially alienate some listeners who are drawn in by the warmth of the first half of the record, but, upon further listening, the album’s latter tracks offer an otherworldly mystique as captivating as the anthemic triumph of the title track.
Cabral closes the album with a spacey lullaby that recalls both the deep, resonant emotion of the top half of the track list and the cool, whimsical sci-fi of the later numbers. A tribute to the omnipresence of melody, in nature as in human society, ‘Sweet Talk’ is Spellling’s wonderfully idiosyncratic ‘Thank You for the Music’. Rather than rounding off with a decisive full stop, she concludes by placing the album back into its context, releasing it into the eternally musical universe that inspired it.
Listen to The Turning Wheel: