Meditations on Music: Esperanza Spalding’s “Exposure”

Songwriter/bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding has yet again shown how energetic a creator she is. With her sixth album, she has taken a wildly different approach from those she had taken with her previous releases—and wildly different from any other artist, for that matter. Even with 2016’s “Emily’s D+Evolution,” a stark contrast to her jazz roots based more in rock and songwriting, “Exposure” came as another surprise — although this time the surprise was in how it was made. In her announcement of the album this summer, Spalding declared that it would be completely written and recorded within the span of 77 hours. Not only that, but the 77 hours would be live-streamed via Facebook for fans to see, adding a personal, down-to-earth quality to the project and making it not just an album release, but rather an entire experience—a way for Spalding and her fans to connect.

While I only tuned in for about 45 minutes of the 4,620, I was taken aback by the honesty and reality of recording an album, especially in such a short amount of time. The chunk I saw was part of multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird’s stay, as a guest on one track of the album. The two had toured together, and with their firm footing in their respective backgrounds—Spalding in jazz and Bird in folk—their experimental forays into the rock genre shined. I heard the final product, “The Ways You Got the Love,” about four months after the livestream, and the natural yet somewhat tense growth the song had was a unique experience to say the least. Studio footage is sometimes released in documentaries, but it is of course edited and, in many cases, seen years and years after the album is in its heyday. For “Exposure,” this was not the case. Everything could be seen immediately: the technical difficulties with monitors, getting past a block writing lyrics, getting past a block writing music, getting past so many blocks. It was all there on screen for many to watch and experience along with the two musicians. I can only imagine how the rest of the stream went, but something tells me that Bird’s visit was not the most difficult part. To let so many into this intense world of writing and recording is a privilege, and even those who were not able to get their hands on one of the limited CDs or records should be grateful for Spalding’s openness.

Now for the album itself. The first listen was immediate fun. Fans of “D+Evolution” will most likely enjoy this album, as it is very much going in a similar direction; but do not expect the same cohesiveness and sum of the parts as her previous release. It is fairly easy to tell the album was recorded in 77 hours, but that in no way is a dig on its quality. Spalding and her compatriots (slightly different personnel than “D+Evolution,” plus a few guests) are one of the few groups I think would have the drive and talent to be able to pull off such a project, and there is no doubt that we have ended up with fantastic music. The album, in my opinion, just lacks that huge, powerful feeling its predecessor encompasses; to be fair, however, “D+Evolution” set a high bar.

Some moments reclaim the emotion captured in the previous album: notably, the track “Heaven in Pennies”—especially the last bit, with its swirling backing vocals, ethereal production and a unifying, gut feeling that comes from Spalding belting over it all. Other moments simmer and contrast with Spalding’s distinct busily-composed, bubbly sound. On “Coming To Life,” we are graced with heart-wrenching, wordless vocals from guest Lalah Hathaway and what sounds like a live recording of the rhythm section stirring underneath. These moments of settling and marinating did not necessarily stick out to me during my first listen, but after a few more passes, their place and role became more obvious; they were vital to “Exposure” as a whole because its creators simply did not have the time to let any songs sit — or at least sit as long as most artists are able to sit with their songs. That sitting time can ease the process and bring an organic feel to songs that may not necessarily need it, but are certainly stronger for having it. While Spalding and her bandmates could write songs so quickly and successfully—I had no doubts about that—they essentially had no choice but to go with instinctual feelings and first decisions. They lost that time to let the songs stew in their minds and tweak things, while in “D+Evolution,” that time was essential, as its meticulously crafted parts and whole were evident throughout. Some of “Exposure” harkens back to that craftsmanship, but without the extra time, hence bringing a beautiful light to the album’s stillest moments.

At the very least, all critiques about the music aside, this project was an important one in Spalding’s catalogue. It set her apart from most others, continued her exploration into an eclectic sound that is not just jazz and perfectly captured her agile, spontaneous creativity. While I hope she gives herself more time for her next project, I loved “Exposure” and the concept behind it, and cannot wait for future music.

Note: “Exposure” came with a bonus disc of tracks, titled “Undeveloped,” created in a practice session before the livestream. This review does not cover “Undeveloped.”