How do musicians deal with politics? The question weighs on the minds of composers and performers alike; for some, it is a question magnified in the last few years, while others have dealt with the politics of their lives and communities through their entire careers. It often feels like there is no good answer, or maybe just more questions–who gets to, or should, write political music? Is there a line between promotion and appropriation? But isn’t all music political anyway? There’s not necessarily a best practice, though maybe there are some bad practices.
Amid these questions, Gelsey Bell’s This is Not a Land of Kings EP (Gold Bolus Recordings) is a stark, simple, and powerful statement on the political climate of our time.
This release consists of three short songs for Bell and her Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 castmates Amber Gray and Grace McLean. These three brilliant voices deftly lead us through the release, written with obvious influence from folk music and Bell’s background as a singer-songwriter. There’s a nostalgic quality to these songs, as each settle into the framework of Americana tunes that tell stories of resistance, lament, and empowerment.
The true power of Bell’s statement on this album is that she’s taken a style so immediately familiar and pushed it to the edge—a personal brand of “this is not normal.” The title track opens the EP, a swaying chorale declaring, “This is not a land of kings. We don’t owe you anything… You do not possess power absolute.” The trio’s voices are warm and familiar, the pop-tinged virtuosity of musical theater mixed with a tasteful scattering of tongue-clicks and popping sounds. However, while the beautiful harmonies of the opening track can easily bring us to a comfortable listening space, a gestural touch like the repeated motive of slow upwards glissandi colors this familiarity with a rough edge.
This effect is amplified by the absolutely riveting timbral range of the three singers. Returning to the example of the glissandi, they gently introduce this idea with a welcoming tone; by the end of the piece, the trio slings us from the hushed delivery of “don’t despair/this is not a land of kings” to a bold and triumphant “to protect from fools and despots and lying thieves.” The final delivery of “we are harbored here and rolling up our sleeves” coalesces to a rare unison, powerfully reinforcing the point that this is a message of solidarity.
The colors and themes give this short EP an amazing sense of form. Where “This is Not a Land of Kings” is a call to arms of sorts, “Rains on Me” is a reflection, dwelling on a lost history of identity with a more somber and meditative tone. On this track, the movement from mellow to bright is less a rallying cry and more a lament–catharsis for sadness rather than anger. It also provides ample space for the trio’s incredible lyricism to shine, every phrase delicately and sensitively delivered for maximum impact.
This culminates in the final track, “She’s Gonna Breathe Now,” a defiant gesture towards future action. The track opens with anticipatory, ominous chants of “now… now…” and slowly builds tone, text, and range. The trio effortlessly trades background and foreground responsibilities, kaleidoscoping their vocal colors as the piece moves from the solitary line “She’s gonna breathe now/and she don’t need your permission” to the dramatic harmonic and timbral shift at “Oh there’s fire in her eyes/She’s gonna call you on your lies.”The song climaxes after a wordless vocal break moves into a drawn-out glissando, cresting as all three voices break off into independent, unapologetic final statements of “Oh there’s fire in her eyes/She’s gonna call you on your lies/And she’s gonna show you to the door/We’re gonna hang on her every word/She don’t need your permission…/She’s gonna breathe/Now.” This multi-voiced declaration is the culmination of the frustration and anticipation of the whole album, a release that boils down to the promise that change is happening “now.”
It’s hard to adequately capture the strength of This is Not a Land of Kings. Perhaps these songs of frustration and change hit harder for me because I’m living abroad, temporarily distanced from the goings-on of American politics, or because I first heard them right after a shooting in my hometown. Maybe I was simply disarmed by the stylistic familiarity, so as soon as the tunes introduced these subtle stylistic manipulations against the backdrop of Americana songwriting, the emotional impact was all the more powerful. Maybe I’m just jaded by political commentary, and this EP sucked me out of that disgruntled state, if only for a moment. We’ve all had something to say in the past few years–but on this EP, Gelsey Bell seems to say it best.