Old story: People grow up, even artists. The Mirah of the new album (a)spera is not the Mirah of 2004's C'mon Miracle or 2002's Advisory Committee or 2000's You Think It's Like This but Really It's Like This or any of the many singles, compilations, collaborations, or live recordings released in between. You can't step in the same river twice, but you can remember and enshrine the past, sometimes at the expense of the present. We'll get to the present Mirah shortly—but first, let's build a little shrine.
Like many listeners, I first fell for Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn via You Think It's Like This and its jaw-dropping, heartbreaking opening one-two punch: the yearning, acoustic love letter of "Million Miles" and the big, bursting romantic fireworks of "Sweepstakes Prize." (I fell again upon flipping the album over to side-B opener "Archipelago.") "Million Miles" is a vividly sensual lament, Mirah singing in a deliberately small but plainly capable voice, "If I could see you, I'd take off your clothes/And we'd lie in the garden and watch the weeds grow"; "Sweepstakes Prize" finds coproducer and collaborator Phil Elverum playing Phil Spector, buoying Mirah's hooky guitar riff and beguiling voice with enough drums, acoustics, and fuzzing bass to sound like a (sweet) chariot charging through the love-struck choruses ("I'd tell you why/But I don't know/It's simple and/So complicated"). The rest of the record, which ranges from hushed solitudes to summery expansiveness, never lets up.
Mirah followed You Think It's Like This with the equally devastating Advisory Committee. Her voice was inching further to the foreground of her songs, her singing confident instead of coy. She began dabbling with genre more than before, ranging from the operatic cowgirl blues of "Cold Cold Water" to the charming Casiotone electro pop of "Recommendation" to the theatrical klezmer of "Light the Match," with plenty of idiosyncratic experiments in between. Mirah and Elverum had also honed their production skills, retaining the previous album's distinctive four-tracked immediacy on some songs, while expanding its inventive auditory spaciousness on others. "Mt. St. Helens," for instance, begins with simple acoustic guitar and voice. Halfway through it starts to rumble with dense, foggy rhythm and echo before exhaling into a coda anchored by low-resonating electric bass strums. Throughout, as on You Think It's Like This, Mirah's lyrics and singing are close and dear.
In the eight years between those breakout albums and her latest, last month's K Records release (a)spera, Mirah has kept diffusely busy, releasing (in chronological order): a couple of EPs, a collaboration with Ginger Brooks Takahashi, an album of politically minded covers and originals with Black Cat Orchestra, one studio album under her own abbreviated stage name, a remix album, an album about the secret lives of insects scored by Spectratone International, and a collection of old material and rarities.
Eight years is a long time, and (a)spera (the name is a Latin pun, meaning both "adversity" and "hope") is unmistakably more mature than Mirah's earliest albums, or even 2004's C'mon Miracle. From years of collaboration, she has assembled an impressive ensemble of players and producers, including longtime collaborators Lori Goldston and Elverum as well as Tucker Martine and kora harpist Kane Mathis. The album's multi-instrumental arrangements, though perhaps less distinctive than her earlier, lower-fi recordings, remain gorgeous, fuller than on previous "solo" records but never crowding out Mirah's voice—and that voice, stunning from the start, is as sure and supple as ever.
The album's songs are as varied as anything Mirah has done. The wispy "Shells" is built of little more than Mathis's dexterous harp plucking and Mirah's airy singing. "County of the Future" is more noir, a cabaret klezmer, all loose bass, popcorn-popping snare rolls, and a displaced Middle Eastern background choral and string melody. "Gone Are the Days" is dour, bare-bones jazz, beginning with a thinly echoing hand drum and creeping upright bass, adding swaying, muted horns and soft vibes. Best of all is the album opener, "Generosity," a bittersweet ballad whose lyrics recall Shel Silverstein's classic The Giving Tree over a backdrop that begins with stately strings and opens up to include muffled drumming, electric piano, quietly overdriven guitar, and a chorus of singers intoning, "We just want more" to Mirah's sad refrain, "I won't give more."
I want to love (a)spera the way I love those older albums, but it just doesn't hold up—against either those albums or my nostalgia.
For one thing, (a)spera lacks the startling intimacy of those early albums. Maybe we should have seen this coming from the concept album about insects, but Mirah's songs have moved away from the intensely personal. These new songs are more cinematic in scope or like fables, more archetypal and broadly mythic. Songs like "The World Is Falling" and "The Forest" employ a first-person-plural narration that was also common on Share This Place. Here, Mirah is singing for legions of bugs or forces of nature, where previously it seemed like she was baring only herself.
Even the first-person-singular songs on (a)spera, such as "Shells" or "Country of the Future," are more guarded and oblique than her earlier songs; compare the plainly emotional but intellectually abstracted lyrics of "Education" to the butterfly-kissing whispers of C'mon Miracle's similarly sentimental "We're Both So Sorry" (to say nothing of blush-inducing old tunes like "Murphy Bed"). "The River" is a fine exception that gently unfolds across nearly eight minutes, instruments and voices fading in and out around Mirah's slowly strummed electric guitar and sighing, touching vocals.
Artists change; hell, listeners change. When "Education" quietly climaxes and echoes out with the refrain "I'll never change/You'll never change," it's a tragic, impossible, and I guess ultimately undesirable promise, bound to be broken. (A)spera may not be the Mirah you first fell in love with, but she remains a treasure—whether she's singing about heartbreak and sex or politics and insects.