Album Review: Dessa - Parts of Speech

Dessa's Parts of Speech
Dessa's Parts of Speech (Courtesy of the artist)

There's an adage in the music industry that goes, "You get a lifetime to make your first record, and a year to make your second." It's hard to say what inspired that little ditty, but for whatever reason it kept playing on a loop in the back of my mind as I listened through Dessa's sophomore album, Parts of Speech.*

At this point in her career, Dessa has little left to prove. In Minnesota, she's achieved total media saturation. Nationally, her profile has steadily risen with vocal support from flagship critics like Robert Christgau and media outlets like Elle Magazine and MTV. And all signs point to Parts of Speech serving as her biggest push toward a mainstream audience yet. It's a goal she spells out pretty plainly in one of the album's strongest tracks, "Fighting Fish":

"Around here we don't like talk of big dreams / To stand out is a pride, a conceit / To aim high is to make waves, to split seams / But that's not what it seems like to me, cause / I wanna try I wanna risk / I don't wanna walk, rather swing and miss / I'm not above apologies / but I don't ask permission / got a lot of imperfections / but I don't count my ambition in 'em."

And yet "Fighting Fish" is one of the only brazen moments on Parts of Speech, and one of the only tracks to offer a larger look at what's happening in Dessa's community and in the world at large. The more confident Dessa becomes in her stage life and public persona, the more vulnerable she allows herself to be in the studio (which to this day is still her bedroom closet, at least for her vocal takes), and it provides the listener some sharp contrasts. The album blasts out of the gates with great momentum, and her first three tracks on Parts of Speech are easily the strongest on the album. But then things slow dramatically, like a dragster whose parachute was deployed too early in the race; by the end, the album is focused so inwardly that it feels like it might get swallowed up in its own somberness and disappear, like the main character in the song "Annabelle."

Now this might just be my personal taste speaking, but I don't listen to Dessa records for the singing. I tend to think of her melodic delivery like the sidecar to her truly remarkable qualities: Her wit, her sense of rhythm, her talent for weaving prose into bars of hip-hop, her twists and turns of phrase. She once described singing to me by saying she has "learned how to control the little slide whistle in my throat a little better, to make the most of what I have." So after hearing the pulse-quickening, apocalyptic single "Warsaw," I found it puzzling to put on Parts of Speech and find that it's full of wrenching, torch-song-style ballads, and that if you skipped ahead to the second half of the album you might not even know she's a rapper.

Far be it for me to attempt to pigeonhole Dessa, however. She's made her brand by being genre-less, shifting hip-hop fans' expectations while appealing to a broader, more pop-oriented audience. And the album is far from a failure--in fact, I think my impression of it would have improved greatly if it were simply a few songs shorter. "Warsaw" is a standout track, its gurgling, subterranean beats pulling up like a tank underneath her as she spits lyrical shrapnel. As is "Call Off Your Ghost," which is chock full of I've totally been there lines like "I don't think badly of her / I hope she makes you happy / It's just a lot to ask to watch your future / walking past me."

Not all of the ballads are slouches, either. "Dear Marie" is eerie in its use of atmospheric keyboards and cavernous, booming bass notes, not to mention its clever arrangement of backing harmonies (also tracked by Dessa). And "Annabelle" is such an accurate portrait of a woman fading into her own depression that it could have only been written by someone with first-hand knowledge of that kind of suffering.

What becomes tedious after repeated listenings is that so many of these ballads are structured in the same way: a narrator, played by Dessa, is attempting to reach either an ex or current lover (or, in one instance, "The Lamb," an abuser) who doesn't seem to be listening. Sometimes that narrator is on the phone, sometimes the narrator is writing a letter, but with no one ever picking up on the other end it can feel like Dessa is hosting a circular conversation with herself.

That's why I think tracks like "Warsaw" and "Fighting Fish" stand out so starkly above the rest of the record: The Dessa we've gotten to know thus far wouldn't stand for that kind of one-way interaction. In those songs, Dessa demands to be heard.

* She technically did put out a record between 2010's A Badly Broken Code and this new release, but 2011's Castor, the Twin was more of a reimagining; the only new song on that record, "The Beekeeper," was actually meant to be a preview of Parts of Speech.

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