Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine Review
by Stamish Malcuss
The allure of Cecile McLorin Salvant’s latest odyssey, Mélusine, is tantalizing and complex, as it should be for a concept album that unearths layers of mythology, history, and cultural syncretism. This album flows with interwoven languages and musical styles, effortlessly curving from French to Haitian kréyol, Occitan to English. Salvant is an architect of atmosphere, a painter of soundscapes, guiding us through ancient tales and modern reflections with deft control.
For Salvant, Mélusine is imbued with secrets rather than stories. Mysteries that explore themes such as the destructive power of the gaze, cultural hybridity, and the transformational capabilities of secrets themselves. She intricately links these themes to the legend of Mélusine, a woman cursed to become half-snake every Saturday, whose story forms the album’s spine.
The song choices contribute to the story-telling, drawing from a repertoire that dates back to the twelfth century. For instance, “Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?” opens the album, showcasing the French chanson in a light both dramatic and ethereal. The archaic alongside the modern evokes the timeless pull of the mythologies explored.
With songs like “Doudou” and “Wedo,” Salvant incorporates an Afro-Latin influence, which offers an upbeat contrast and a nod to her multicultural background. There’s a certain rhythmic propulsion in tracks like “La Route Enchantée,” driven by an ensemble featuring pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummers Kyle Poole and Lawrence Leathers.
Another interesting contrast is made with the 17th-century courtly song “D’un feu secret,” which is tinged with the unexpected presence of synth accompaniment. The synergy of old and new elements is a recurring motif here, a daring endeavor that lands gracefully, for the most part.
“Dame Iseut,” the last track, showcases the transcultural lens through which Salvant sees her art. Translated into Haitian Kreyol from Occitan—an ancient language from the south of France—this song serves as a lovely nod to her heritage, and could be considered the essence of what this album aims to be: a fusion of histories, languages, and identities.
The album is a challenging labyrinth to navigate, in terms of stylistic shifts and thematic depth. As a guide, I can offer you the observation that Mélusine, while captivating, may not be an album one can easily revisit. It starkly contrasts Salvant’s previous work, such as Ghost Song, but that isn’t necessarily a drawback; it reflects Salvant’s fearless exploration of musical territory.
Feel free to traverse these aural stories and secrets, where myths form in notes and stories unravel in harmonies. Salvant is your guide through Mélusine, but how you engage with this universe is entirely your own journey to embark upon.