On the opening track of My Brightest Diamond’s newest album All Things Will Unwind (2011, Asthmatic Kitty Records), Shara Worden sings “Fusion makes the world go around / confusion with the making of all that sound.” This investigation into the role of opposing forces and how they interplay in the act of creation is central to the record and informs the majority of the work. While it comes across at first as somewhat immaterial, the deeper one delves into the record, the concept begins to expand and broaden, and is then revealed as fundamental in the core of the album’s architecture. But while many have attempted to explore the role of polarity in a spiritual and intellectual way through music, Worden’s is one of the few that does so with deftness and potency, delivering a wildly clever and first-class work of art.
All Things Will Unwind began as a side project with the yMusic chamber ensemble, in which Worden would reinterpret earlier My Brightest Diamond songs and also present new work for a high-profile concert in March 2011 at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook series. Under a fairly strict two month timeline to arrange and prepare the program, Worden established a rigorous writing, arranging and editing process. This produced a flurry of activity that also called into question the ontological repercussions of the compositions: was this a firmly My Brightest Diamond piece? Would this be the first Shara Worden solo album? How does the prodigious skill of the yMusic ensemble fit into the equation? Having fully discarded the growl and ferocity of the electric guitar and opting for a swirl of winds and strings, Worden had fashioned an opus with an inherent dilemma.
In order to ameliorate this tension, Worden leapt into the project with determined abandon, allowing the songs to organically percolate and form. Even so, she set some boundaries that acted as infrastructure for the project: every sound would be created acoustically, she’d play as infrequently as possible and if she did play, the instrument must fit into a suitcase. Slightly humorous, certainly, but taken in the context of My Brightest Diamond’s catalogue, it was a fairly tall order. Worden’s use of electric guitar and bass were up to this point predominant, so the election (and restriction) of the sonic apparatus was indeed quite a radical decision.
Stakes raised by entering into the vernacular of contemporary classical music, Worden combined the prowess of yMusic ensemble players with her own idiosyncratic approach to songwriting. Nonetheless, there’s a surprisingly easiness to the feel of All Things Will Unwind. Despite the stringent writing regimen, Worden and yMusic come across as intriguingly relaxed. While there’s a definite construction and mapping to the project, Worden’s voice has never sounded more poised and elegant, perhaps a result of this aesthetic rigor and release. Also, her instrument has strengthened with a deeper grasp of nuance and her choice to highlight the rhythmic quality of her tone. The previous two My Brightest Diamond records showcased Worden’s ability to inhabit spheres of melancholy and, on the other hand, giddy humor. Oscillating between the two without much in between, there appeared to be a space in which Worden felt uncomfortable, giving a slight hollowness to those albums. On All Things Will Unwind, however, she allows her timbre to be an unfettered cornerstone to the work and is willing to travel into many emotional realms she’d only hinted at before. It’s thrilling to audibly perceive and experience the maturation and expansion of her artistry.
All Things Will Unwind is anchored at times by subtle and at others overt manipulations of rhythm. Songs like “Be Brave” have a throbbing kick drum that acts as a framework upon which Worden pushes and pulls as she sings to produce a swinging sensation, which then dissipates into standard meter. It’s this dynamic between cadence that is so compelling to the listener, further drawing in one’s attention to the song’s anatomy. In fact, the relative withdrawal of a typical rock setup (drums, guitar and bass) would seemingly declare that this project is more an examination of tone and orchestral hues, but All Things Will Unwind is arguably My Brightest Diamond’s most rivetingly rhythmic album to date. By engaging competing meters and shifting the responsibility of establishing a forceful beat to a variety instruments, such as the horn section, pizzicato strings and breath control, Worden has fashioned a record that is spirited and vigorous, without the ordinary devices that normally fulfill these roles.
In opening track “We Added It Up,” Worden isolates the interchange between “agreeable disagreeables” as being the thrust of her investigation; however, the song ends with a chorus of voices chanting “love binds the world” on repeat. This turn in focus further complicates what had seemed the center of All Things Will Unwind and introduces a new narrative thread in which Worden examines the extremities of the human condition in our emotional landscapes which are then made manifest through interaction. Concepts of love, compassion, humility and even violence enter the arena at this point, and while these may sound like overly common tropes in contemporary music, it’s imperative to both evaluate them in the context of My Brightest Diamond’s catalogue and then the ways in which they’re employed. In doing so, Worden’s investigation then deepens and thickens and actually is remarkably novel.
On lead single “Reaching Through To The Other Side,” Worden muses on mortality and her place in the journey of life, singing, “from womb to grave I now walk an ancient line / one foot follows the other / this finite place– is it limitless?” On top of a tribal-like beat and moody strings, Worden as protagonist acts as both medium between the living and the dead and ageless, providing a supernatural consciousness to the work. It’s experimental and impressionist in its appearance, and it ends with her exclaiming, “Oh! How gorgeous! Oh how gorgeous– this struggle now in time!” It’s a type of introspection and also mysticism that is not necessarily regular in Worden’s lyrics and displays a somewhat recent sagacity that grants credence to her role as commentator and prober of the human experience.
Another fairly original leitmotif in All Things Will Unwind is Worden’s fascination at our agency in the esoteria of life. Songs like “Ding Dang,” “Be Brave,” “She Does Not Brave The War” and “High Low Middle” scrutinizes the roles we play in both the theatre of sentience and our performance of cultural (and counter-cultural) mores. Clearly affected by the fracturing of American identity through the current economic recession and radicalism of political groups, Worden avoids the trap of chest-beating, belligerent and combative airing of grievances with the administration by employing an artful turn of phrase when engaging such subjects. Rather than deflate her underlying message, Worden is able to effectively take issue with our failings, which gives All Things Will Unwind the sort of cleverness that is habitually lacking in contemporary music.
The penultimate track, “Everything Is In Line” is a call-and-response piece between Worden and frequent collaborator DM Stith, with the phrase being, “everything is in line / all things will unwind.” It’s somewhat despondent in its implications, but she recovers this mournfulness with the closing song “I Have Never Loved Someone”– a lullaby written to her son. It’s a curious title for the track, since it could easily insinuate a level of despair and loneliness, but the line is actually, “I have never loved someone the way I love you.” There’s a fluctuation between melancholy, wisdom, vulnerability and tenderness, and while some may find it trite simply because it’s Worden’s version of a lullaby, it’s an utterly magnificent exploration of love and loss. She walks through the eventuality of her death, but does so by reassuring her son that she’ll remain with him as he continues on. She sings, “when I grow to be a poppy in the graveyard, I will send you all my love upon the breeze / and if the breeze won’t blow your way, I will be the sun / and if the sun won’t shine your way, I will be the rain / and if the rain won’t wash away all your aches and pains / I’ll find some other way to tell you you’re OK. You’re OK. You’re OK.” It’s profoundly maternal without being cloying and approaches death as part of the cycle in which her role is one of calm and compassion. Through the album, Worden goes through the eventualities of human emotion, and her final descent into this space of equanimity provides closure to the journey and reveals an insight that is quite new to My Brightest Diamond’s work.
The yMusic chamber ensemble deserve enormous praise for their sharp and adroit virtuosity with their instruments, and they add immeasurably to All Things Will Unwind. Imagining this project without their skillful backing seems useless, since the richness and texture of their playing both make this album radical and wholly distinctive. Even so, it is Shara Worden’s keen lyrical composition and deft architectural hand at constructing these pieces that really make this collection succeed. Since the debut of My Brightest Diamond, she’s shown considerable talent and promise, but there was also a frustration that she wasn’t fully maximizing her aesthetic potential. On All Things Will Unwind, she silences those voices of concern and delivers a tour de force that stands far above the majority of contemporary music. It’s a masterpiece that will prove quite difficult to surpass, but the fact that this is only her third album as My Brightest Diamond makes the future look even more the brighter.