To be always on the cusp of potential death is the horror of the human condition, something Alela Diane felt keenly after the difficult birth of her second child. Her new album Cusp explores what it means to be a mother in a chaotic and often brutal world.
The opening track Albatross describes the difficulties of having to leave your child behind to travel. She ‘would rather be an albatross’ flying free without worrying about ‘what she left behind’ but alas, she is tied to the ground. On the highway all the day long, my destination is a windowless room, another windowless room, another windowless room. The repetitive nature of being a touring musician is nothing more than a prison. Despite the somewhat dark subject matter the music here is utterly sublime, the haunting quality of the strings and brass blending with the piano refrain to echo her uncertainty. Her singing voice has almost no accent, giving it an otherworldly quality.
On The Threshold the past and the future give her comfort as she deals with the very present demands of motherhood. She is weary, yet the lilting folk music makes her world sound like a strange fairytale. Similarly So Tired is an honest confession of how the sacrifices of her dual roles at home and work have taken their toll. These songs were written in a snowy cabin in the depths of winter, so there’s a foreboding fear for the future apparent even in the beautiful moments of love like Moves Us Blind.
When songwriters attempt to tell stories that aren’t their own, especially stories of human suffering, it can sometimes feel like appropriation or even exploitation. However if done with sensitivity then such songs can give a voice to the voiceless. On Emigre, Alela sings the story of a refugee mother trying to take her children to safety across a treacherous ocean. It is beautifully sung, conveying empathy for the tragic scenario and its victims. In the narrative of the album the song feels right, taking the horror she felt at seeing a photograph of child refugee Alan Kurdi’s dead body washed up on a beach and turning it into a lament for motherhood itself.
Never Easy is about Alela’s own mother and how giving birth gave her new perspective on their fractious relationship. In Song For Sandy she contemplates the tragic life of folk singer Sandy Denny, whose musical ghost haunts this collection. The weighty subject matter does begin to feel a little overwhelming at this point so it is a relief to hear Buoyant, a song where she sings of joy of being pregnant and languidly floating in a river. There’s an appreciation of the eternal quality of nature too. This leads into the best song on the album Ether & Wood, featuring harmonies from First Aid Kit. To me this is the most naturally beautiful vocal on the album, as elsewhere her singing style can sound affected at times.
Wild Ceaseless Song is a simple piano ballad, which nicely concludes the themes of the album. Here she admits that being a mother is ‘to watch your heart escape your chest’ and see time disappearing in front of your eyes. She imagines her own daughter’s future, and the family face which will live on long after she is gone. It’s an astonishingly moving end to an ambitious work.
Cusp may be a deeply personal album, but the appeal is in how Alela Diane looks outwards to consider others as well as herself. In the end isn’t that what mothers do, and what we all should try to do, if we want a better world for those who come after us?