In concerts over the course of the last year Al Spx, the woman who writes, records and performs as Cold Specks, has been starting sets with an a cappella rendition of the old Elizabeth Cotten reel “Shake Sugaree.” It’s a sly, spooky little song, one where a lightness of melody distracts from a dark meaning. The song was written by Cotten, but the recorded version is sung by her great-granddaughter Brenda Evans, whose wide-eyed, angelic delivery adds to its peculiar tension. The lyrics to the song are so spare they almost defy literal meaning: You can read them on the page, but synthesizing them into a coherent story proves difficult. (A Google search reveals thousands of frustrated message board threads attempting to do just that.) The only clue to its meaning is found in its mournful chorus, which the song cycles back to again and again and again: “Everything I have is down in pawn.”
That state of destitution is the starting point for I Predict a Graceful Expulsion, Spx’s stark, stunning debut and eMusic’s Best Album of 2012. Like “Sugaree,” it’s also sung by a lost child, one who has moved from a place of great abundance to a place of great need. And, like Cotten, Spx also writes in sense imagery that has volumes of emotional resonance, but resists all attempts at literal parsing. Its few moments of clear meaning come suddenly — illuminated by lightning-flashes before disappearing once again into darkness. Despite this — or, perhaps because of it — Expulsion is, by a good distance, the year’s richest and most enveloping record.
Musically, it’s almost ruthlessly spare. Most of the songs are barren as skeletons — just waltzing acoustic guitar and the occasional solemn piano — and all of them benefit from Spx’s bruised, pleading voice. Interviewers never tire of pointing out to Spx that she once termed her music “doom soul,” but they consistently miss the other label she gave it, Gothic Gospel. That’s no accident: Though she’s not especially forthcoming with the details, Spx comes from a deeply religious family. Al Spx is not her real name — it’s a pseudonym she came up with to keep them from finding out about her music. While it’s hard to accurately assess the particular brand of Christianity that her parents practice, suffice it to say it’s severe enough that their daughter would rather come up with an alias than have them know that she’s a singer. Spx has said in interviews that one of the album’s themes is “loss of faith”; many of the lyrics on the record are Bible verses, but nearly all of them are wrested — almost angrily — from context.
In “Holland,” which flutters like dry wheat in a hot breeze, Spx sings, “We are many, we are many,” which makes it seem like it’s an anthem of solidarity until you realize she’s quoting the demon-possessed man of Mark Chapter 5, whose infernal inhabitants answered with that sentence when Christ asked what their name was before He cast them into a herd of swine. She quotes Scripture again in the song’s transcendent finale, asking: “Oh death, where is thy sting?” but she sings it not as it appears in the Bible, as a mocking question, but as someone waiting to physically learn the answer (the next line is, “Does it feed on eager limbs?”). “Hector” opens with the lines, “I’ve walked behind you/ assumed power in the dead of night.” When asked, Spx has said that Hector is the name of a demon. The song crests with Spx singing, “Lower it down, kill all my faith.” One of the albums most potent lyrics comes in “Blank Maps,” where Spx defiantly declares, “I am a goddamn believer” — both proclaiming and renouncing faith in a single breath.
At first blush, that line seems sarcastic, a way for Spx to distance herself from her heritage, blasphemy being the greatest among the sins. But with each listen, it becomes clear such a callow interpretation is wrong. There’s a defiance in Spx’s voice as she delivers it, a set-jawed, leaning-into-the-wind kind of obstinacy that feels too resolute and too deeply-felt to just be a middle finger to the Most High. And it starts to become clear that she’s getting at something else — at the belief that comes after belief, at the understanding that passes peace, at the thing you do when everything you have is down in pawn.
All of that comes racing to the fore in “Elephant Head,” which arrives deep in the album’s second half. Spx has downplayed the song’s meaning (at a concert at Mercury Lounge in New York she dismissed any subtext by saying its title was “just a name my brother used to call me”), and initially its lyrics seem to follow the album’s pattern of mystic riddling. But something alarming happens about a minute and a half in. After spending the bulk of the record speaking in parables, Spx suddenly forgoes her complicated lyrical Esperanto and delivers, in clear, direct language, what might be the album’s summary statement: “It’s a strange year, and it appears that I am stuck.” It’s a bracing moment of candor, deepened by the fact that Spx follows that naked expression of despair with the rejoinder that gives the record its title: “But I predict a graceful expulsion.” And in that split-second, the lens suddenly twists into focus; the vapor crystallizes. In those two lines, Spx skillfully spins a deft, clever appropriation of the religious theory of salvation. Christians see pain as a virtue because it provides a passage to heaven, and so they endure it in the hopes of reaping an eternal reward; Spx — a “goddamn believer” — is singing about something bolder and scarier: the bravery and determination that comes in the absence of faith, without the promise of reward. She’s singing about the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen. And when you unlock that riddle, you fall suddenly into the song’s deep, beautiful message.
It’s a song that says heaven is here right now and it’s for anyone who can push through death and can keep on pushing until they can hear the harps. It’s a song for anyone bold enough and brave enough to stare full-on into the darkness and see only the celebration on the other side — someone, as Spx beautifully puts it, “Who’ll dance around martyrs and sing at caskets.” It’s a heathen’s spiritual and, like all spirituals, it carries a bullheaded message of redemption in the face of insurmountable odds. It says that life is difficult and that it can be defeating, and that sometimes, bad things happen and then keep on happening; that the meaning can be difficult to decode and the blows too brutal to absorb. But it also says that There’s A Great Day Coming. And it may be hard-won, and it may be so far off that it seems like just a twinkle in the distance; and it may feel like fantasy, and your resolve may buckle, and it may take every ounce of courage and strength and belief you have to envision your escape. But this one thing is certain: You will get out.