I first became aware of Latifah Phillips a few years ago when I began listening to her project, The Autumn Film. I fell in love with that music. It was heart-on-the-sleeve, emotive stuff. The lyrical content, which spoke of deep issues like experiencing abuse, hiding from the world, and overall brokenness, was matched beautifully by emotive, driving, and building melodies. One of the essential pieces of what drew me into The Autumn Film was Phillips’ voice. Her tone and style consistently seemed to capture and authenticate the emotionality in those songs. My fandom was solidified in 2012 when she collaborated with Derek Webb on the SOLA-MI project’s Nexus record, a concept album in which Phillips’ voice represents a machine that has been brought to life with AI. Again, she was able to sing and project the character in such a way that you can sense this being’s struggle to process what’s happening and to respond, even emotionally, to all the new stimuli. So, yeah, I love Latifah Phillips’ voice.
Therefore, I have highly anticipated her new solo project, Moda Spira, and recently released self-titled album. And it has not disappointed me in the least. I expected a melancholic, emotional record and that’s what she has made. But, let me be clear: Moda Spira is not The Autumn Film or SOLA-MI. And it’s definitely not Page CXVI (her hymns-based project). This is something new, even though it distinctively sounds like Phillips.
There is a deeper level of soulfulness in this record. That’s not to say her previous work has been devoid of soul… not at all. But there is a different soulful quality to this music that’s difficult to qualify. Certainly, the song What You Need is a great example of this. It is easily the most overt example in its deep emotional pull as the lyrics offer aid to someone in desperate need. But this “soul” is not limited to that song. No, I feel it throughout the record. It is a part of the connective tissue that binds the record together. The songwriting, melodies, and instrumentation all carry that soul, but the dominant soul-conveyer is once again Phillips’ vocals. In my opinion, they are more captivating and emotionally evocative in this project than any I’ve heard before.
Combined with this strain of soul is an ethereal feel to the album. At various times, the songs have an otherworldly dynamic. I don’t understand the technical aspects of music well enough to speak to how Phillips makes that happen, but I think it has to do with instrumentation (beautiful use of synthesizer/keyboard) and mixing. At times, certain instruments are muted or sound like they are a little further back in the background of a song. This dynamic adds a depth to the record and certainly plays an elemental role in that ethereal feel.
One thing I hear on this record which fits with Phillips’ patterns in her previous music is her penchant for songs to build slowly into a crescendo. She is, in my opinion, a master of meaningful repetition. And that repetition will build gradually, adding different instruments or other elements with each repetition. Eventually, it all leads to a satisfying climax. I hear some of that on this record as well, and I still love it. It never gets old for me. Whenever I listen to one of Phillips’ songs containing that specific dynamic/movement, and I let myself engage with it, it takes me somewhere emotionally, usually somewhere I need to go.
Moda Spira is a beautiful record. It holds onto the elements of Phillips’ previous work while establishing new ground. This record has been a long time in the works for this gifted artist, and the time has been well invested. It is an emotional journey worth taking.