“The pope must be drunk!” Camae Ayewa announces. “Stumbling through the streets, spitting out ‘Hail Mary’/ The pope must be drunk, eyes closed, nose in the air/ Not saying nothin’, not doin’ nothin/ Just stumbling in the street/ Mumbling, mumbling, spitting/ Manufacturing god in his own image/ Feeding the flesh of lies to little boys.” The image she conjures is not a roguishly smirking Jude Law but a monstrous old man at the helm of an institution too big to be undone by even horrific scandals, “up in the Vatican getting drunk with the devil, getting drunk with power.” Behind her, a four-piece jazz band simmers with nervous tension, barreling onward like a jalopy in the process of breaking down. It’s as if the rhythm section keeps racing through measures too fast, their deconstructed bebop vamp piling up at each intersection, short-circuiting into convulsions, just barely holding it together. As Ayewa’s voice gets louder and angrier, the noise intensifies, horns blaring like sirens on their way to the day’s next tragedy.
Even before the pandemic, this world was pandemonium. To be alive at this moment is to be bombarded by a constant stream of information, constantly stimulated and frequently aggravated. Power seems more concentrated and less benevolent than ever. Injustices abound. Societal collapse feels more realistic than ever. Maybe planet Earth has always been beset by crises, but now our screens serve them up to us one after another, a ceaseless stream of dystopian headlines sandwiched between absurdist memes and cat pics. Even for those who claim to have hope for a brighter future, every day brings some new cause for outrage and anxiety, sentiments amplified by voices shouting each other down on TV and an endless scroll of half-informed takes. Disruption has gone from a Silicon Valley cliché to a constant state of being. The chaos never seems to cease.
Irreversible Entanglements seize control of that chaos and turn it back outward. Like garage rock or traditionalist country, jazz in the 21st century is retro by default, a bygone sound echoing into the present from a different era. Yet this band charges its decades-old discipline with a distinctly modern perspective. They tap directly into the cacophony of these times and connect it to the tumult that has been percolating since before people were making records. Saxophonist Keir Neuringer, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Tcheser Holmes do not sound like a museum exhibit. They sound like mad scientists manipulating kinetic energy, harnessing pure random chance without taming its volatility.
Their music becomes the backdrop for Ayewa’s fire and fury. As Moor Mother, she spouts revolutionary rhetoric over harrowing electronic soundscapes, resulting in deeply challenging protest music that prioritizes unfiltered expression over conventional notions of accessibility. Three years ago, on Irreversible Entanglements’ self-titled debut, she demonstrated how well her preaching about the black American experience translates to a free jazz context. The confrontational impulse remained, but where Moor Mother’s music presents raw ugliness and dares you to look away, this project beckoned you closer with an immersive charisma bordering on hypnosis. It is slam poetry gone apocalyptic.
Who Sent You?, the second Irreversible Entanglements album, is not merely a mirror for our current predicament. It’s a jarring reminder that for some, dangling on the precipice of disaster is nothing new. A track like “No Más,” with its lyrics about learning to love yourself fully, no longer defined and divided by oppressors, could become a rallying cry for anyone who feels smothered by the powers that be. “Blues Ideology,” the song quoted above, is a stirring condemnation of corrupt institutions: “No one will say a word, no one will think twice.” Yet the troubles Ayewa evokes most often are those that have been haunting black people for all of American history. That’s no clearer than on the title track, a loud and unstable longform panic attack about encountering police in neighborhoods typically left alone to decay. Her voice twisted with fear, Aweya cries, “What are you doing here?!” The creeping doom closes in as her mantra becomes: “Here comes the end! Here comes the end!”
As immediate as this music is, it takes the long view. Ayewa begins the album by depicting an America “where we forget the names of our ancestors, and scream out into the void, helpless, without courage.” She ends it with an appeal to tradition and ritual, to “time and space reunited.” In their words, their music, and even their name, the group presents this all-consuming mess — particularly the struggles of poor, vulnerable minorities — as the result of dysfunctions so ingrained they can only be undone by burning them down and starting over. Stepping into the busy cityscape of “The Code Noir / Amina” like it’s a pulpit, Ayewa builds deliberately to her call to arms: “At what point do we stand up? At the breaking point? At the point of no return?”
Irreversible Entanglements are at their best in these moments, when Aweya is transmuting generational trauma into vivid exhortations and her bandmates seem to be revising reality on the fly. Who Sent You? offers occasional retreats into calm that allow listeners to catch their breath, respites as necessary on this album as they are in daily life. But its most thrilling passages find the band careening forward, teeming with urgency, colliding and combusting but never quite going off the rails. It is the sound of human life speeding recklessly ahead through turbulence — dodging, pivoting, recalculating in real time and then blasting off again into the future.
Other albums of note out this week:
• The Weeknd’s as-yet-unheard After Hours.
• Morrissey’s I Am Not A Dog On A Chain (also unheard, but for different reasons).
• J Balvin’s latest urbano blockbuster Colores.
• Alicia Keys’ first album in four years, ALICIA.
• Mixing Colours, Brian Eno’s new album with his brother Roger.
• Haru Nemuri’s wildly adventurous mini-album LOVETHEISM.
• Moaning’s new post-punk dispatch Uneasy Laughter.
• Forever Underground, the latest from producer Eric Littman’s indie-rock collective Phantom Posse.
• Tokimonsta’s guest-heavy electronic excursion Oasis Nocturno.
• Nice Try’s Madeline Robinson’s solo debut as Racecar, Racecar Music.
• Promising Chicago dark-punk trio Primitive Teeth’s second self-titled EP.
• Constrict’s ferocious hardcore EP No Eden.