The American singer Kurt Elling’s bittersweet readings of the American songbook and literate vocalese have long set him apart, but more recently they have gained an overt political edge. His 2018 album The Questions, a call to face one’s fears at a time of existential threat, opened with an astute cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and set Franz Wright’s death-themed poem “A Happy Thought” to music. His latest release delves deep into the American psyche with a collection of blank verse narratives that twist, turn and rarely end well. Poetic inspirations are noted on the sleeve — Wright, Robert Bly and Toni Morrison are mentioned — but the lyrics are Elling’s own. Add in tricky melodies, pitch-perfect phrasing and Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez playing at a peak and the recording is a defining statement of Elling’s 25-year career.
Pérez, present from the album’s second track, matches Elling’s poised lyricism with stark harmonies, brooding solos and dramatic highs. It is Pérez’s rhythmic force that amplifies the “Song of the Rio Grande”, a memorial to drowned Salvadoran migrants Oscar and Valeria Martínez Ramírez, and his shifting responses that give “Gratitude” wings. “Stays”, based on music by Wayne Shorter with lyrics by Elling and Robert Pinsky, has the compulsive grip of a story well told and the lyrical flow to match. The ending is a surprise, but Pérez’s nuanced accompaniment ensures the tale bares retelling.