What a fascinating career Dawn Richard is carving out. With this week’s release of Pigments, her new collaborative album with producer and composer Spencer Zahn, the New Orleans singer-songwriter’s evolution from expressly commercial pop to avant-garde experimentalism is beginning to parallel Scott Walker’s in its unexpected audacity.
Richard was already the only artist who can claim to have released albums on both Bad Boy and Merge. Her trajectory has taken her from Danity Kane, a girl group formed on the reality show Making The Band, to Making The Band impresario Diddy’s critically heralded Diddy-Dirty Money project, and on into a run as one of the most artful independent R&B artists of the 2010s — a figure adventurous enough to work with electronic producers like Star Slinger and Machinedrum and quirky rock bands like Dirty Projectors between impressive, fully formed releases of her own. Last year, her path led to Merge Records, the revered North Carolina indie label that built its reputation on rock acts like Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Arcade Fire, for the release of the stellar Second Line.
Highlights like the lithe, bouncy dance track “Bussifame” and the epic ballad “Perfect Storm” flexed a vision and virtuosity to rival the Knowles sisters and Frank Ocean. Second Line was very much an R&B album, just one released into an utterly different context than the one she began in, whereas Pigments represents a stylistic quantum leap. Richard wrote her lyrics and vocal melodies to airy, dramatic music by Zahn, whose work exists at the intersection of ECM jazz, ambient, and neoclassical composition. “I want to see the world through your eyes,” she sings on “Sandstone,” sounding like a spectral robot in a cavernous foggy darkness, ascending toward the light. In moments like these, the world gets to see Richard through a new lens as well.
Richard’s last couple albums, new breed and Second Line, were steeped in New Orleans culture; the former pulled from her connection to the Washitaw Indians, a Mardi Gras staple; the latter is named for the city’s traditional jazz funeral parades. Pigments arises out of the Big Easy as well — per promotional materials, the album “tells the story of finding one’s self through dance, self-expression, and community through the lens of New Orleans’ contemporary arts scene” — and it finds Richard connecting with her heritage in a different way. Her father, Frank Richard, lead singer of the funk band Chocolate Milk, had a master’s degree in classical music theory, a sphere Dawn Richard now enters through her partnership with Zahn.
Zahn, raised in Massachusetts and based in Brooklyn, has been similarly adaptable across genres and scenes, whether backing up alt-pop star Empress Of, co-producing his solo debut People Of The Dawn with Darkside guitar mastermind Dave Harrington, or reworking songs from that album with singers like Kimbra and Half Waif. The latter project yielded his first collaboration with Richard: On a new version of “Cyanotype,” Zahn’s warm, wistful ambient instrumental became a canvas for Richard’s discouragement. Her performance was both subtle and emotionally charged, her voice dipping into the digital morass when it normally would have frayed at the edges.
Pigments is far more elaborate, but it’s an outgrowth of a similar process. Earlier this year, Zahn released Pale Horizon, an album of intimate piano and bass duets crafted in upstate New York during 2020’s pandemic summer. Where that album erred on the sparse and quiet side, Pigments leans into maximalist melodrama, even without much in the way of percussion. Zahn builds cathedrals of sound out of orchestral instruments plus the tools of rock, pop, and jazz, lending an almost operatic feel to Richard’s performance. There are traces of Björk’s abstract fantasy worlds, but without the eccentric fairy-goddess routine that gives her albums such sharp edges. Some of the climactic moments — like the part of “Cerulean” when the synths and guitars come surging in behind Richard and the ensemble’s pop side shines through — take me back to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. I even hear some loose resemblance to last year’s spellbinding Promises from Floating Points, the late Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra, but with that album’s sense of mystery subbed out for a more concrete kind of vivid personal outpouring.
Zahn’s primary instrument is bass, and like any good bassist he’s gifted at elevating his more front-facing collaborators. Richard’s voice is billed as one of five lead instruments on the album along with clarinet, saxophone, guitar, and strings. As such, she disappears for long stretches of Pigments, ceding the spotlight to a rotation of soloists who blur the lines between soft jazz, symphonic reverie, and new age drone. When she does step to the mic, her voice is often slathered in effects, yet never in a way that undercuts the aching humanity in her words. In big, bold streaks of melody, she sings of longing for mentorship, for transformation, for self-acceptance. Her lyrics are direct but never simplistic. Many are questions, anxiously dangling there: “Can I lose myself in you?” “Are you hurting?” “Will you wait for me?” It all coheres loosely into a story that’s begging to be acted out on stage in fancy theaters and concert halls while this ensemble plays through the album.
Near the end, before she pushes through to epiphany, Richard laments, “I can’t look myself in the mirror/ I only see reflections of what I used to be.” It’s a painfully ironic confession on an album like this one. If Pigments accomplishes anything — beyond solidifying Zahn’s reputation as a composer capable of helming these kinds of prestige pop-art projects — it will be to once again radically revise listeners’ understanding of Dawn Richard and her art.
Pigments is out 10/21 on Merge.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Taylor Swift’s Midnights
• Arctic Monkeys’ The Car
• Dry Cleaning’s Stumpwork
• Knifeplay’s Animal Drowning
• Carly Rae Jepsen’s The Loneliest Time
• Tegan And Sara’s Crybaby
• Pinkshift’s Love Me Forever
• Archers Of Loaf’s Reason In Decline
• Brutus’ Unison Life
• Frankie Cosmos’ Inner World Peace
• Nick Hakim’s Cometa
• They Are Gutting A Body Of Water’s Lucky Styles
• Wiki & Subjxct 5’s Cold Cuts
• The Soft Pink Truth’s Is It Going To Get Any Deeper Than This?
• Armani Caesar’s The Liz 2
• Circuit des Yeux & Claire Rousay’s Sunset Poem
• Lowertown’s I Love To Lie
• Bibio’s BIB10
• Exhumed’s To The Dead
• Simple Minds’ Direction Of The Heart
• Sloan’s Steady
• Terre & Maggie Roche’s Kin Ya See That Sun
• Whitmer Thomas’ The Older I Get The Funnier I Was
• Dave Harrington & Tim Mislock’s Hollywood Visit
• Their / They’re / There’s Their / They’re / Three
• Goat’s Oh Death
• Rubblebucket’s Earth Worship
• Robyn Hitchcock’s SHUFFLEMANIA!
• Alice Boman’s The Space Between
• a-ha’s True North
• Meghan Trainor’s Takin’ It Back
• Too Much Joy’s ALL THESE FUCKING FEELINGS
• Stone Temple Pilots bassist Robert DeLeo’s solo debut Lessons Learned
• Kathryn Mohr’s Holly
• Ariel Zetina’s Cyclorama
• Jordaan Mason & Their Orchestra’s Rewrite The Words Again
• Inclination’s Unaltered Perspective
• The Otolith’s Folium Limina
• Jesse Harris’ Silver Balloon
• Ibises’ In The Swim
• Debbie Gibson’s Winterlicious
• Andrea Bocelli’s A Family Christmas
• Andy Partridge’s My Failed Christmas Career – Volume 1
• The Sleater-Kinney tribute album Dig Me In: A Dig Me Out Covers Album
• My Morning Jacket’s MMJ LIVE VOL. 2: CHICAGO 2021
• Basement’s Colourmeinkindness (Deluxe Anniversary Edition)
• Militarie Gun’s All Roads Lead To The Gun (Deluxe)
• Serj Tankian’s Perplex Cities EP
• Jobber’s Hell In A Cell EP
• Poppy Ackroyd’s Pause Reworked EP