Besides being the brain behind My Brightest Diamond, Shara Worden has built herself some pretty serious art pop credentials. She’s fronted her own band, played in Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoisemakers, guested with The Decemberists and The National, dressed up in extravagant, theatrical costume, and collaborated with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. It’s not surprising, then, that Worden’s guitar pop is taken to a new level of dramatic eccentricity on All Things Will Unwind, her latest LP, which sees her working with yMusic (a six-piece chamber group whose bio includes this impressive line of collaborators: Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Antony and the Johnsons, Rufus Wainwright, Grizzly Bear, Yo-Yo Ma, The New York Philharmonic, and David Byrne). That ability to skew between Grizzly Bear and Yo-Yo Ma is something that Worden has in common with Antony; the classical flourishes are more than mere window dressing.
The choppy guitar that opens the album on “We Added It Up” sounds simple enough, but the soundtrack-esque, musical theater flute washes and string stutters sound like a caricatured version of something off of Joanna Newsom’s Ys. The lyrics about a difficult relationship (“If I was cat, you were a dog”) take that Newsom fancy and tone it down a notch, shifting things a step closer to pure pop territory, while the group-sung backup harmonies push towards Broadway. The orchestral instrumentation gets an added dose of groovy percussion on the following track, “Reaching Through to the Other Side”, its combination of intense narrative, adventurous music and lush vocals akin to Owen Pallett.
To be sure, All Things Will Unwind thrives on a penchant for emulation, Worden gleefully stirring disparate affectations into one pot. It’s not a negative that each song on this album evokes a different musician or songwriter, particularly since every one that does get referenced is an iconoclast, a strong, unique, powerful voice in the pop/rock field. When the patterned, intricate strings on “Escape Routes” kick out, a rickety drum beat and floating woodwinds stream around, Worden’s rich, resonant voice evoking an earthy Joan Baez. No matter what the genre or instrumentation may suggest, Worden’s voice is the instrument driving the album. In the throaty low tones of “Be Brave” or the cooing rises of “In the Beginning”, there’s something inherently dramatic about the way that she delivers lines, one that speaks to acting out roles. She has a natural ability to imbue theatrical flair into the simplest, most narratively direct lyrics.
The mournful “She Does Not Brave the War” is the most direct heartstring-puller of the album, the minimal acoustic guitar, plucked strings, and swooning winds finding their swell at exactly the right moment. Its lyrics are a bit obtuse, though, the description of “her” bending but not breaking taking on a vague, somewhat lifeless affectation. Whereas the lines could be cringe-worthy coming from other vocalists, Worden escapes the over-drama, keeping her voice at a quiet, lush lilt, knowing when to reign in the drama just as well as when to push it to the extreme.
The folksy Americana take on “There’s a Rat” (complete with little vocal hiccups that push the upper register) takes a vaguely protest-oriented turn, talk of there being “a snake in the cellar and he’s drinking my wine” and an insistence on letting the narrator keep her house safe and secure from invaders. These lyrics are oddly presentist considering the big, meaty theatrical hooks of the music. But as long as you’re able to keep the real world that the lyrics seem to suggest out of your head and instead revel in the dramatic goodness that otherwise inhabits each and every track on the album, you’ll be in good shape (and that’s coming from someone with zero appreciation for musical theater).
While the lightly philosophical lyrics of “High Low Middle” suggest a similar problem, the funky rhythm given over to horns and a swinging drumbeat keep things interesting. Worden’s album isn’t great because of its lyrical content (though other songs are much better than the simple take on class structure here) but instead for her ability to deliver almost anything convincingly– and to do so over impeccably orchestrated instrumentation.
The gamelan-y percussive clangs of “Everything Is in Line” may be the most interesting slice of music on the album. The skipping percussion and DM Stith’s soothing counter-melody pulse together into a vaguely Eastern set piece. Closing out on the soaring, affecting “I Have Never Loved Someone”, however, pushes the album out on an appropriately big swan song, leaving Worden to thrive in the rare atmosphere. This is a big album full of big emotions, and to close out on one of the biggest cements its themes.
Essential Tracks: “We Added It Up”, “Reaching Through to the Other Side”, and “Everything Is in Line”