Now’s as good a time as any to ask the question “what do you need a song for?”: After a good 10 days or so this June, when American life looked like it might go back to normal, the country reverted to what’s become familiar over the last 18 months. When nothing’s the way it ought to be and everything feels dire, thinking about the role art plays in our lives feels selfish; what good are musicians and their music if there’s a plague going around? (And especially what good are the people who write about the people making music in the first place?)
Esperanza Spalding’s new record, Songwrights Apothecary Lab, puts that big question front and center, but considers it through a considerably more therapeutic lens. “What do you need a song for?” She doesn’t pose that thought with contempt or derision; she’s asking sincerely, because the truth is that even when circumstances are this dreadful, we do need songs (and, for that matter, poems, books, and movies). “Music is our only cheer,” goes the old hymnal “Welcome Every Guest.” “Fill both soul and ravished ear.” Spalding, as well as her guests, including Ganavya Doraiswamy and Corey King, channel the spirit of the verse throughout this record: A song is a tonic. In addition to whatever else a song can be, and a song can be so many things, a song can heal, nourish, comfort, and enrich us, and those are welcome effects no matter the place, no matter the time.
Take a listen to “Formwela 3,” a track that distills the entire rollercoaster ride of COVID-era America pretty much on its own. It’s a “quiet before the storm” piece, opening with trilling piano and Spalding humming like she’s building up to an invocation or casting a spell. The longer she makes that invocation, the more the piano picks up before short, punctuated snare drums join in; the percussion wanes and waxes, until halfway through the song it bursts into dominance alongside that ringing piano, one of two constants giving the sound a sense of shape. “Undead and unchanging / It may be or maybe you’re changing what it means / To be home,” she chimes deep into the song.
Well, of course. “Home” changed for all of us. It’s a school, an office, a spacious cage where we can stretch out and that we can’t easily leave. That dreadful notion feeds into, say, “Formwela 7,” which builds to an ear-shaking crescendo of brass and ivory clanging against each other like Spalding’s calling down the apocalypse. Songwrights Apothecary Lab doesn’t carry on in this vein for its entirety; tracks like “Formwela 11,” 3 minutes of playful non-lexical chirping and chanting, and “Formwela 4,” a sensual duet between Spalding and King, break from the graver intonations made elsewhere on the record. But a stark contrast is necessary to answer Spalding’s question. Songs are for anything, good or ill, better times and worse times, panic and peace.