Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn find solace in color and motion on 'Pigments'
In Dawnie Walton's debut book, "The Final Revival of Opal & Nev," one of the lead characters has an almost molecular understanding of friction turned to sound, that then becomes melody. She follows her body's intuitive responses as a litmus test for an album's direction, and it's these reactions that chisel her path in the music industry, even when no one else is paying attention to how her body is jerking and swaying. Whether singing Motown covers or composing rock and roll protest ballads, as the genres change, the character's inclination remains the same — follow the body, and the rest will align. Pigments, the new album from Dawn Richard and Spencer Zahn, is interested in physical responses to stimulation, and how it manifests in the most private moments.
A singer-songwriter, animator and food truck owner, Richard has met a kindred collaborator in Zahn. Her last album, Second Line: An Electro Revival, brimmed with the sumptuous, full-bodied notes of swooning New Orleans jazz over dense house beats. This time she's in a more unorthodox bag, flexing muscles that feel like those worked in behind-the-scenes studio sessions; in atmosphere and fearless originality. Zahn's most recent album, Sunday Painter, found the multi-instrumentalist approaching music with a skipping stone's lightness that compelled him to create something that channels a different type of energy between artists and listeners — where the consumers follow the direction of the creator, even when the destination is not quite visible. It's this latter skill that anchors the two creators in a shared cocoon of innovation and engagement; one that's apparent on the album's 11 movements, which are brief in their beauty, yet long-lasting as they settle into the body.
The first, "Coral," is a crisp and light arrangement of wind and string instrumentation that feels sparse despite holding the weight of a sprawling orchestra-backed production. Its intimacy is in the way it lands, coaxing muscles into repose, before flowing delicately into "Sandstone." There is an elegance to the transition, evidence of Zahn's skill as a composer, and Richard's sharply attuned ear for complementary tones. Only when the sound of her voice creeps into the breathing spaces around the instruments does it become apparent that this is a new song. Neither vessel intrudes on the other, and when she sings, "If I can be more, If I can be more than you are," her vocals are lonesome and pained. Instead of folding into despair, the saxophone rises, pulling Richard into a contemplative state without despondency. There is no embellishment in the pleading. The unease is crushing because the need is so simple.
In the desert, you can see every color across the spectrum — multiple shades are caught in flashes depending on the sun's placement, pelting of rain on the sand, the movements of those who've forged a life in the dunes and planes, and our own imagination after staring at such an expanse. "Indigo," "Vantablack" and "Sienna" are successive tracks off Pigments that summon the colors and solitude of the desert into a narrative wrestling with what it means to be alone. The early notes on "Indigo" are somber and searching, but as the song progresses, the mood gradually shifts, aided by twinkling moments and the steadying presence of the sax; that flows into "Vantablack," uninterrupted and certain, meeting Richard's ready incantations. "Can I drink you in?" she asks, a plea heightened by Zahn's bass circling around the lyric's edges. This pair of songs acts as a type of relay — one starts the process of reflection, and the other addresses work that's been brought to the surface.
It's not escapist music by any means, and much of the album functions as a flip side to day-dreaming. The melodies are meant to sharpen your senses, and they are successful largely because of how these artists resist convention in delivering this unnerving refuge. The lyrics don't have easy inroads, and the sounds take sharp detours that make it difficult to anticipate a rhythm. Instead of generating earworms, the tracks are benign yet unmistakable, like pebbles in your shoe, signaling what's uncomfortable, and urging you to address it before moving any further. "Sienna" buzzes with the grief and joy reaped by its two creators, emotions dispelled on an album serving as a canvas for the shades of healing we hold as we evolve. That journey is never linear and this mood piece seeks to keep the listener slightly off-kilter, so you can be rightly centered.
You're never more lonely than in the intervals when your present feels alien, buckling against the parts of your body that echo with promises and aspirations. Richard has noted that this album is for finally reaching "a place where you've decided to love the pigments that you have." Like Esperanza Spalding's Songwrights Apothecary Lab and Shabaka Hutchings' Afrikan Culture EP, the record is a tribute to the ways we shape-shift when we rest. This trio of albums work as a reverent, and unintentional, triptych harnessing billowing chords and unsettling arrangements to foster remembrance: with stillness comes memory, and then regeneration. Where Second Line was concerned with the expulsion of despair through jubilant dance, Pigments comes to terms with the aches that make us human and asks listeners to act in accordance with their bodies' instinctive reactions to change, fear, doubt and love.
The second half of the album strikes a balance between retrieving what was buried and accepting the limitations inherited from generations of emotional avoidance. "Opal," the seventh track, acts as an interlude, laying the groundwork for self-interrogation. The wordless song brings to mind Chimera, a Vievee Francis poem in which she writes, "But up from my wounds — from this goat's body — up from wood-smoke lungs, from the milk of me, comes a song, a melody, to open yours, then lick them clean." Francis is writing about the intimacy that sometimes follows moments of destruction — her narrator has been seeing to their own wounds, while also reaching to cleanse those of the one who is closest. On Pigments, the songs that can be characterized as ballads circle this notion of harnessing our pain lessons, to help those who still don't know how to carry their own.
On "Saffron," Richard repetitively wails, "Can you save the last dance," and the line is almost inaudible, forcing listeners to move in tighter, listen more deliberately, so they don't miss the tender call delivered as both a question and reminder. She's leaning into love, while sharing that she's vulnerable in her desire. "Crimson" finds her asking, "Can you wait for me?" as Zahn's penchant for improvisation bleeds through the track, playing the role of messenger next to Richard's position as scribe. It's his strongest appearance as an arranger; he carefully directs the string notes, alongside the tenor saxophone, navigating a skilled group of collaborators into a single wave.
Pigments is a dynamic collaboration intersecting both artists' discographies. Richard has been a part of the pop machine, and she veered paths after tiring from the lack of structural support. Her solo albums punctuate the depths of her musical interests, and they outline the clarity that comes once an artist can create at their own pace and revel in the freedom that allows for experimentation and errors. Zahn has largely worked outside of those constraints, and with the confidence of someone who's rarely had to contend with being an outsider in any room where music is the core component.
Their union holds space for the autonomy they've made sacred, while distinguishing the differences in the journeys that brought them into orbit. It's the type of grace we should readily make for ourselves, and one we should willingly offer to those we love. If the process can't be simple, Pigments wants to make it necessary.
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