By Charlotte Freccia ’19
In 2014, a calamity struck the California-based indie-folk collective Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in the loss of their only female member, Jade Castrinos. Fans of the group lamented: gone were Jade’s soulful vocals, which added wonder and whimsy in duet with Alex Ebert, the band’s frontman and main vocalist, in infectious and iconic tracks like “Home” and “That’s What’s Up” and her significant feminine presence. Without Jade, ESMZ is just a group of eleven bearded, suede-hat wearing white dudes. Distinctly less inclusive, and less interesting. Even worse, the separation of Jade from the band became very messy and very public, complicating the twelve-piece wannabe-psychedelic pseudo-folk cult’s image of harmonic melody-making and free love. Real hippies don’t have occupational disputes, am I right?
In any case, the personal and musical growing pains of the band are very apparent in their latest release, PersonA. The gloomy, sparse cover artwork that subverts the colorful, rustic flower-child imagery of the covers of their previous three albums signals that PersonA is ESMZ’s most serious work ever. Gone are the hand-clap, foot-stomp sing-alongs that sparkled with careless wonder (“40 Day Dream”, “Man on Fire,” etc.) and in its place are several songs with surprising but satisfying jazz influences that march confidently past the seven-minute mark and contain dark musings on the futility of community and the encroaching pain of growing up and growing apart. PersonA marks the first time that an ESMZ song appeared with the “Explicit” label attached, indicating the evolved darkness and raw quality of the lyrical content of the record. PersonA is also the first ESMZ album that was written collaboratively, which might surprise listeners like myself who noted that the album’s feel was singularly insular. There are no more of the ESMZ’s signature group choruses: Ebert’s distinctive, nonchalant vocal delivery dominates every track, calling even more attention to Jade’s absence. This was a tough loss to take, because the first several albums produced by this band made me want to quit school, don my finest hemp-cloth kimono and prayer beads, and join a gypsy caravan. PersonA kind of makes me want to take a nap. A nap in the sun, maybe, but a nap nonetheless.
PersonA is subdued. It delivers the same kind of hazy, dreamlike, improvisational feel of the old ESMZ we know and love, albeit in a more focused and somber way, while treating the listener to a kind of sonic cohesion desperately lacking from previous projects. It’s the most substantive, complex work that ESMZ has put out yet. Personal standouts include the opening track, “Hot Coals,” leading single “No Love Like Yours,” and the free-floating “Free Stuff.” There are glimmers in Pe
rsonA, glimmers of growth, and in the dusty absence of their most visible and endearing member there is an astounding opportunity for the collective to find a new, more focused, more grown-up and modern sound.