Coming off her inventive 2016 album Emily's D+Evolution, singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding offers another highly conceptualized production with 2019's kaleidoscopically tactile 12 Little Spells. Where Spalding's previous work was built around a central character, here she offers 12 songs each explicitly inspired by a separate body part, such as the mouth, eyes, fingers, and yet more esoteric parts like the "solar portal." Joining her on this tactile journey of sensation are longtime associates guitarist Matthew Stevens and drummer Justin Tyson. Together they craft deeply ambient, intricately constructed songs that fall yet further afield of the crossover jazz, fusion, and R&B that garnered Spalding so much of her early praise. In that sense, the album is a worthy follow-up to Emily's D+Evolution and 2012's Radio Music Society, but one that may keep her more jazz-oriented fans at arm's length. In every way, Spalding doubles down on her neo-prog, art rock, and avant-garde influences, offering songs rife with harmonically and rhythmically inventive soundscapes, as well as lyrics that read very much like poetry. Many of the songs, especially the opening title track, have a dreamy, off-kilter vibe that evokes the trippy sounds of 1970s children's educational programming, like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Similarly, the hips-oriented "Thang," with its gospel church organ and bluesy vocal harmonies, sounds like a lost number from the musical Hair, while the fingers-centric "Touch in Mine" brings to mind the sensual grooves of '90s Janet Jackson. Bear in mind, none of these songs are mainstream pop hits; they often feel more like aural art installations than conventional rock or pop tunes. But interestingly, Spalding has made an album where each song begs to be judged on its own terms, even as the overall concept builds to a singular, whole idea. While her often avant-garde and circularly hypnotic songs tend to meet your ears as an enveloping wash, she still manages to grab your attention with startlingly inventive midsections, as on "With Others," where she changes up the rhythm, synching up her vocals with Stevens' guitar line and singing "I've been learning about psychology, neurobiology, avarice/Now I can't rest 'cause everything reeks of basic needs." Sensuality and the battle between mind, body, and soul are themes Spalding continually returns to throughout 12 Little Spells. There's even a song called "The Longing Deep Down" that's all about the abdomen. It's those basic, bodily needs both connected to and often working against our logical minds that seem to fascinate and inspire her. On the legs-focused "Readying to Rise," she sings "All the limbs are readying to rise/Dancing the animal, while the animal in you guards the tangible in you."
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar