While the cover art of Mirah’s (a)spera album might suggest new-agey bullshit, the content is far closer to hippie cabaret. I’ve read a couple of reviews that claim the title (a)spera is a play on two Latin words, one meaning “hope” and the other meaning “hardship.” I have no way of confirming this because 1) I don’t read or speak Latin and 2) I’m kinda lazy.
(a)spera, with its pretentious lowercase title and Queen of Krypton album art could stack the deck against itself for the “judge-a-book-by-its-cover” crowd, but it’s a brooding beauty of a record. Mirah’s voice (her full name is impressive – Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, a name which suggests that maybe she is the Queen of Krypton) is soft but expressive. She never has to shout to cut to the bone, which she illustrates well on opener “Generosity,” where she sings, “I won’t give more” and is answered with a chorus of “we just want more.”
(a)spera manages to be a dense, heavy record despite a distinct lack of crashing drums and distorted guitars. Mirah kills the world with a whisper, not a scream. The songs are built on string arrangements (you can hear the fingers zinging on the guitar strings on “The World is Falling”, where she sings, “though you wet yourself with fear/ you were sure your God was near”), a few well-placed horns, and Mirah’s voice. Like Andrew Bird’s Noble Beast, then, Mirah’s (a)spera is truly composed pop album, the kind of thing you might dig if you listen to a lot of Gustav Mahler (which I’ve been doing quite a bit since seeing the L.A. Philharmonic perform his 4th Symphony with my girlfriend and her mom last month). Like Mahler’s compositions, Mirah can take a song to a great emotional high and then bring it crashing down in an instant.
There’s a somewhat obvious metaphor running throughout (a)spera; many of the songs deal with nature and destruction in a way that might suggest metaphors for lost love, but there are times where the romantic note drops out and (a)spera begins to strike me as an environmental album, as if Mirah cannot separate the destruction of her planet from the destruction of personal relationships. “Education” is ostensibly about two people, but when she sings “I never change,” followed by “You never change”, it takes a broader turn. “You” becomes “We” and, if you’ll pardon the expression, “we” means the world. All of us. We get better information, we get better technology, but at the end of the day, we’re still over-consuming and placing economics ahead of our environment, despite concrete evidence that you cannot breathe fucking money. Yeah, there are some people fighting the good fight or whatever, but it’s a steeply uphill battle for new knowledge to replace old dogma (and the new knowledge is destined to become old dogma someday too, despite its best intentions).
So (a)spera can be a bit of a bummer, but it’s a lovely bummer. There aren’t any really bouncy songs, but “Shells” is a slight reprieve after the heavy triumvirate that opens the album. It’s a story song sung over a what I believe is a harp. But it’s only a matter of time before Mirah dives back into the Weill-by-way-of-Waits music on “Country of the Future,” a song of long-distance love set to a persistent, soft drum beat. Mirah dabbles in the cliche here, singing, “Love has both captured/ and set us free”, but it’s not unearned and, cliche or not, it’s a pretty appropriate line. Love someone long enough and you’ll end up committed to them (a kind of being captured, despite the fact that you want to be captured) and yet, a truly great relationship can be quite liberating. If you don’t believe that shit, maybe you should dump husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend (circle the one that suits your situation) and find out how many fish there really are in the sea.
“Country of the Future” ushers in the crashing, louder parts of (a)spera, which is kinda like saying the parts that are analogous to a loud cough in a library, but nonetheless, “Country of the Future” and “The Forest” make for a very satisfying middle part of the album. “The comforts/ they can be deceiving,” Mirah sings on “The Forest,” never conjuring an image of peace without suggesting its opposite (which lends some credence to the suggestion that (a)spera is actually a pun on the Latin words for “hope” and “hardship.” You Latin scholars who read Bollocks! should post a comment and let us know what’s up with all that), a trick she pulls off gracefully throughout the album.
Overall, (a)spera is a grower (again, like Andrew Bird’s stellar Noble Beast), but it doesn’t take long to grow on you, especially if you’re jonesing for a new Jesca Hoop album (which you are, if you have an ounce of sense). Mirah’s voice is lovely and the instrumental arrangements are perfectly tailored to each song, turning each tune into a dense and wonderful way to spend a few minutes. It can get a bit atmospheric at times, meaning that you might have to be in the right mood to listen to it, but it will reward your patience and give you something new to like about it every time you listen.