The fantastical worlds Chrystia Cabral creates as SPELLLING seem to grow and expand at an alarming rate, as if refusing to abide by the laws of nature. The Bay Area artist’s 2017 debut, Pantheon of Me, built dark, atmospheric soundscapes using loops of her voice, reverberating guitar, and synths; even at its most bare, her knack for worldbuilding was spectacular in its eeriness, and she brought it further into the forefront with 2019’s Mazy Fly, her first full-length for Sacred Bones. That record saw her floating above a wider array of experimental textures, but her work remained primarily synth-based. SPELLLING’s dazzling third album, The Turning Wheel, makes the cinematic scope of its predecessor feel formative and abstract by comparison: Cabral enlisted 31 ensemble musicians to bring the 1-hour opus to life, a strange universe exploding in Technicolor.
Yet even as it leans fully into the fairy tale qualities of her songwriting, the double album feels all but removed from matters of the Earth; if anything, the storytelling is more resonant than ever, rooted in the idea that all life is connected. On the tender opener ‘Little Deer’, inspired by the Frida Kahlo painting ‘The Wounded Deer’, the singer sees a part of herself in the titular subject, offering words of affection as well as uncanny self-awareness: “This world is cruel/ And you’re no fool/ You’re dancing with reality, my friend.” That just about describes what Cabal does throughout the LP: inhabiting characters who live their own internal fantasies while being all too conscious of the outside world – a tension that has always been at the heart of SPELLING’s music. The protagonist of ‘The Future’ travels through time to be closer to her lover, “Hiding inside my mind/ In a tower no one would climb,” before realizing she might have made a mistake: “Come and save me/ I’m floating in space/ Farther and farther away,” she pleads.
The cost of sinking into a daydream, Cabral suggests, is being unable to escape the throes of alienation. On a symbolic level, she evokes that duality by splitting the album into two halves, ‘Above’ and ‘Below’, its mood shifting from warm and whimsical to gothic and downcast. Musically, too, the ornate, ambitious instrumentation these songs employ build continuously upward until the synth-infused bedroom landscape and of SPELLLING’s earlier recordings seems like a distant reality. Following the phantasmagoric ‘Emperor with an Egg’ is the seven-minute centrepiece ‘Boys at School’, which acts out a drama so immediate and human it’s almost jarring. (It’s worth noting that Cabral has worked as an elementary school teacher.) For all its theatricality, there’s no attempt to cast the song’s bullies as mythical villains, instead focusing on the claustrophobic horror of growing old and into your own body in an unfair society. An electric guitar solo guides the song to its natural conclusion: “Shut out the sun until I’m small again/ I’m way too tired to climb out of bed/ Four walls is all I need of friends,” Cabral sings, before proclaiming, “I’m meaner than you think/ And I’m not afraid/ Of how lonely it’s going to be.”
Rather than veering into complete darkness, the album’s second half offers glimpses of light, tempting its characters to climb back up where “the law is in place still.” ‘Legacy’ is one of those bright promises, its appeal straightforward: “There’s a legacy that I wanna take over/ Out of my mind and into the daylight.” Though it might as well scan as an apt summary of Cabral’s vision, the artist complicates it by representing the journey as one filled with trepidation and doubt as much as desire and magic. The orchestral arrangements, though arguably less memorable than in the first half, are fittingly labyrinthine, from the jazz-inflected outro of ‘Revolution’ to another magnificent guitar solo on ‘Magic Wand’. Yet Cabral’s presence remains bewitching and dynamic, her ability to dramatize eternal conflicts anchoring you in the moment: “All we want is right here/ All we need and more/ Let your heart surrender/ Let your heart transform.”