A Dessa album is a slippery thing, immediately arresting but difficult to get a firm handle on without a little effort. The Minneapolis singer-MC has a style that resists easy categorization or easy listening: Her sing-song, soft-edged flow and tendency toward abstraction and melancholy in her lyrics are an uncomfortable fit under the “hip-hop” label—as is her tendency to forgo rapping entirely on many songs—and her allusion-packed, philosophical lyrics often require studious unpacking to reveal their full intent. (This is, after all, a rapper who’s referred to Leonard Cohen as “a thug of a lyricist.”) Dessa’s erudite bent is reflected in the titles of her three full-length albums: her solo debut, A Badly Broken Code; Castor, The Twin, a re-contextualized companion album to Code with a name out of Greek mythology; and now the new Parts Of Speech.
Dessa’s proper follow-up to Code (Castor is almost entirely a reinterpretation of existing material) reveals the musician growing increasingly comfortable in the stylistic margins. Parts Of Speech regards big, universal themes through narrow, slanted angles, jumping around between points of view—both lyrically and musically—in a manner that makes it difficult to grab ahold of on the first few listens. Oh, there are footholds: “Skeleton Key” has an immediately striking, piano-based beat and an easily digestible empowerment theme; “Fighting Fish” sounds most like the work Dessa’s done with the Doomtree collective, good-naturedly clever and accessible in spite of its references to the philosophical paradox of Zeno’s Arrow; and “Beekeeper” is a reworking of Castor’s sole new song, a slip of chamber-pop prettiness given extra heft by added skittering production flourishes. (There’s also a moody acoustic cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” that would be unrecognizable from the original if not for the familiar “down, down, down” refrain.)
But Parts Of Speech’s greatest rewards reveal themselves more slowly. “Dear Marie” and “Annabelle” paint pictures of two different complicated, troubled relationships through detailed snippets of observation that disclose as much about the narrators as their titular subjects. (The narrative viewpoint skips all over the place on Parts Of Speech, with Dessa sometimes writing as herself, sometimes as a removed third party, sometimes as a fictional character.) “Warsaw” is a free-association study of feminine mystique that wears its hard-edged, aggressive beat like a suit of armor—or, as Dessa more appropriately puts it, “a bulletproof dress.” And closing track “Sound The Bells” is a hypnotically lovely marriage of orchestration and vocals, with Dessa harmonizing exquisitely with herself over upward-spiraling instrumentation, concluding the album in dramatically somber fashion.
The downside of Parts Of Speech’s multidisciplinary approach is that its range of moods and sounds can make for a fractured listen; it’s hard to assign an ideal frame of mind from which to consume this album, other than simply “emotional.” To put it in the sort of literary terms Dessa herself favors, it’s less a novel than a short-story collection, and not a very cohesive one at that. It’s not a difficult album, but it does require a certain amount of investment from the listener, and a willingness to follow Dessa down whatever corridors her erratic muse leads her.