Shara Worden’s rangy voice is clearly beautiful, but what’s striking is the sheer power it possesses. Say what you will about the Decemberists’ rock opera, The Hazards of Love, but Worden’s turn on that album as the evil queen is inspired. She can be both sinister and utterly graceful at the same time, and her 2006 debut Bring Me the Workhorse showed that dichotomy well. It soared with her voice, but it dug into some pretty dark spaces.
All Things Will Unwind, Worden’s third album, is a decidedly brighter affair than her debut, and less spacious than its predecessor, 2008’s A Thousand Shark’s Teeth. The songs here, all featuring chamber emsemble yMusic, are shimmering pieces of orchestral pop, with Worden’s vocal twists and turns front and center. There’s plenty of variety in the set — Worden smartly runs through all kinds of textures — but there’s often the feeling of something missing.
Right off the bat, the album feels playful with opener “We Added It Up.” The song, a clever update on the tomato/to-mah-to, opposites-attract trope, sounds like a number from some as-yet-unwritten bit of musical theater. You can see her walking around a stage, belting out the words with a spring in her step, then stopping for the touching quiet moment when she nearly whispers “love binds the world.” Later in the album, the clattering “Ding Dang” treads similar ground, as Worden sounds a little too cute snapping off Batman-fight-scene exclamations like “Flash! Bam! Alakazoo!”
Other upbeat moments feel like they’re a little better routed on terra firma. “Escape Routes” is the best song here, moving from the cautious shuffle of the verses where Worden sings of the fragile start to love to the insistent fight of the chorus. “Let’s close off all our escape routes,” she demands, and the strings punctuate her lines beautifully. “Be Brave,” another highlight, cashes in on a similar tension, building up to a dramatic climax that — since it includes full drums, which most songs don’t — feels especially bracing. In these moments, Worden takes a page from the Pixies loud-quiet-loud playbook and refashions it for chamber pop with solid results.
There is quieter stuff that works here too. “She Does Not Brave the War” is threadbare but haunting, while Worden’s lullaby to here son “I Have Never Loved Someone” manages to avoid insularity and become surprisingly effective. But loud or soft, All Things Will Unwind often feels thin. Bring Me the Workhorse was so good because, under her orchestral-pop sheen, there was a rock edge, an element of shadow, of mystery. That same feeling, those deeper levels of intrigue and surprise, are all too rare on the new record.
It’s not that these songs need to be downtrodden in some way, the emotions here are varied enough, it’s that the delivery — focused so heavily on the ensemble and Worden’s performance — feels wholly under control. Worden’s voice is rangy but rarely shocking in its power the way we know it can be. Even when she seems to be railing — both “There’s a Rat” and “High Middle Low” are recession tunes that take dead aim at failed banks and growing class division — her delivery feels too considered. The songs are driven more by clever observation, it seems, than deep frustration.
The music often feels the same way. These are solid compositions, well orchestrated and executed, but they’re well under control. It’s music that sits firmly in the head, and rarely takes a big shot at the gut. So while it sounds pleasant throughout, and sometimes awfully beautiful, it won’t stick with you as long as it could after the album’s final notes fade. All Things Will Unwind, apparently, but here these compositions never do. Instead, they are mostly tamed, and the workhorse seems broken.