Laura Mvula’s Astral Pop

The English singer's second album, 'The Dreaming Room', charts love and pain in cosmic terms

The Dreaming Room, the English singer Laura Mvula's second album, is a careful study of the personal trials one may endure — the sound of a classicist given to mathematics and melancholy, exposing her chambers. Mvula’s emotional freedom has always occurred natively, although the Birmingham Conservatoire graduate has tended until now to polish her impulses, as women and students of arrangement are instructed to do. Her 2013 debut, Sing to the Moon, played with the largeness of English weather and its ability to influence human mood. Nature was the compass that guided environmental odes such as “Green Garden” and “Like the Morning Dew.” The Dreaming Room, by contrast, maps humanity itself as her landscape, with nature as a metaphor instead of a primary text: “Tried to build my house / On a concrete ground / Stone turned into sand / And I was drowning deeper under land,” she sings on the prickling “Kiss My Feet.” Mvula sounds less demure, more inclined toward the electric activities of the soul, even as her musical compositions grow more technical, more electronic, less beholden to pop formulas.

The Dreaming Room is a slim, 12-track affair, over in just 36 minutes, before the echoes of subject and narration have time to settle in. Formally, the economy of space references the structure of a spare, self-consciously postmodern play. What else could contain the rush of history and emotion Mvula has catalogued?

The lineage of black female classicists is short, if mostly because the designation isn’t generously extended in their direction. Since Mvula’s early performances, the multi-instrumentalist easily courted comparison to the global ur-case: Nina Simone. In April of last year, as part of the BBC’s Nina Simone and Me series, Mvula met Simone’s longtime guitarist, Al Schackman, and performed some of Simone’s oeuvre with a Harlem choir to spectacular effect. Simone’s mastery focused on piano, arranging, and, of course, that voice. On The Dreaming Room, Mvula is a skilled anthropologist of instruments long obscured — she plays the celeste, the harmonium, and the electric sitar, in addition to an array of synths. She also inherits Simone’s furies, those emotive bursts that form the eccentric, violent basis of Simone’s political celebrity. “Kill my people / Drown them dead,” Mvula intones on “People.” “Kiss My Feet” floats a composite image of self-immolation and historical massacre, “played with the noose around my neck.”

With this album, Mvula has stuck out her neck. A recent profile published in The Guardian finds Mvula at an English pub, tipping on multiple edges: that of finishing her second album, of managing anxiety attacks that would not end, of documenting the break of her marriage. “So you’re the person I’m going to tell my deepest and darkest to,” she tells the interviewer. She’d willed her husband into existence before they even met: Mvula entered the Conservatoire with “the chief intent of finding a musician to marry.” The power of conjuring washes over The Dreaming Room, as Mvula entreats lovers and devastation and her grandmother to visit, to wreck. “Nan,” a skit between the performer and an aural trompe l’oeil of her West Indian grandmother (it’s actually Mvula impersonating the voice), dramatizes a familiar mimicry. Young black women put on the language of old black women as a means to cope: “Write a song I can jig me foot,” the grandmother says. Seamlessly, “Phenomenal Woman” cuts on, a funk dance track that consults Maya Angelou’s formative poem as much as it does the poet’s past as a dancer.

In the scope of her vision, Mvula descends from Alice Coltrane, with all the transformative power that implies. By the crepuscular chime of her harp, Coltrane took jazz on a vertical ride, crafting sprawling compositions that aspired to translate the din of celestial activity via martial percussion, thin strings, and frosty synths. We call that music astral jazz. The Dreaming Room is Mvula’s idea of astral pop. The London Symphony Orchestra provides harp for a quarter of the tracks; images of the moon, cleansing fires, and panoramic falls from grace beg you to think of the heavens — not for their imagined beauty, but for the looming unpredictability in the atmosphere. “Show Me Love,” the album’s centerpiece, is a gorgeous six-minute-long advance to the crest of a human petition for love. “You showed me love / Of the deepest kind,” she repeats in a round that recalls the carols used around the world to calm fearful children. Knowledge, like love, must be made safe so that it can be made real — and Mvula’s firm use of musical repetition here domesticates the wildness of human connection.

The Dreaming Room is slick, and yet it is so big. Each song is a canticle, especially the ones that bid you dance, like “Overcome,” featuring Nile Rodgers; “Let Me Fall”; and the final jubilee, “Phenomenal Woman.” Dead in the middle of the album, deep in the spirited mournfulness of “Show Me Love,” the possibility that the singer might dance again seems far off. But on The Dreaming Room, Mvula is moving through with forward momentum, to the timeless space where she and a host of ancestors can celebrate once more.

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