A Badly Broken Code

Dessa

Doomtree, 2010

http://dessa.bandcamp.com

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/21/2014

This album, the 2010 solo debut from Minneapolis native singer-songwriter Dessa, is incredibly close to my heart. And for that reason, it’s taken me two years to write about it, trying to find the words to capture the ineffable, ephemeral quality of A Badly Broken Code and of Dessa herself. I’ve always found it difficult to try to describe these works that have made their way into my pantheon of greatness – Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago – the albums that strike something so deep and true that it seems like you lose something by trying to fit the experience into concrete narrative. But if anyone understands this, it’s the enlightened readers of the Vault, so here goes nothing!

Dessa is part poet, part songstress, part rapper – but I hesitate to even separate these things into parts because she so wholly embodies all of them. She writes straight from the vein, raw and evocative, but with an incredible grace. She’s a natural storyteller, a former spoken word artist who has also penned collections of poetry, short stories, and nonfiction. As part of the Minnesota hip-hop collective Doomtree, she brings her expressive flow to the songs on this disc, moving seamlessly from rapping to soulful singing – often even within the same song.

A Badly Broken Code, as its title implies, is something of a challenge for the listener; it’s thorny and tangled, yet still lush and lovely. Each track is a jewel-box of song craft, requiring multiple listens to unfold and let the meaning seep in. It’s a tough task for me as a reviewer to try and convey something coherent about these diverse, complicated songs. There’s the cramped, dense opener “Children’s Work,” whose narrative unspools over a backdrop of ominously tinkling keys and Dessa’s spoken word vocals, immediately followed by the gorgeous layered harmonies of the a cappella “Poor Atlas,” which is an English major’s dream. Another standout, “Dixon’s Girl” finds Dessa spitfiring her rhymes over a smoky big band beat and a double-tracked chorus, establishing her as a confident hip-hop MC. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

My favorite song here – really, just one of my favorites of all time – is “Mineshaft II,” which begins: “Fifteen years from tonight you’ll have to make a decision / The greatest love of your life is going to call during dinner / From the home of the girl that he’s living with now.” Accompanied by militant drums and the cool weaving guitar line, it’s a rich and haunting track in which Dessa imagines having to shed the bitter battle-scars of old love and inhabit herself as a young girl in order to forgive an ex lover (“I used to sing outside the roof outside my windowsill / And I came hoping some ghost of me would be here still / And here you are a stick figure and a busted grin, still ignorant of all the trouble Imma get us in”). It’s a standout on all levels, packed with imagery and soaring on the cracked resilience of her vocals.

Other standouts include “Matches To Paper Dolls,” which finds Dessa detailing an illicit love that just can’t be quit: “Tried sweet talk, tried dynamite / But I sleepwalk back to the battle site / Fight fire with fire but the fire won’t fight / We just fly these circles like tired kites.” The cadence of her voice as she raps the stanzas captures the volatile energy of the relationship, but the sweetness of her singing on the chorus mirrors just how easy it is to fall back into the flame. Meanwhile, “Go Home” is the restrained counterpart to “Matches,” slowed down to molasses to capture the weight of having to disentangle from a man already in a relationship: “I don’t need to be good / I’m just trying to stay blameless.”

The latter half of Code finds Dessa inhabiting her role as a member of the Doomtree collective on songs like “Dutch,” “The Bullpen,” and “Crew,” which have more attitude and swagger to them than the rest of the material. They’re great still, infusing the disc with a shot of energy, but I admittedly return to them less than some of the rest of the material here. I think it’s because Dessa has such a depth and range to her storytelling that the more straightforward tracks don’t give the listener as much of a challenge to work through – and for a music lover, the process of exploring the intricacies of a song brings immense joy.

A Badly Broken Code closes off with another pair of stunners: there’s the brooding, ominous “Alibi,” which I’ve always imagined as being from the perspective of a woman trying to protect her sister from a monstrous husband, and the resonant closer “Into The Spin.” It’s spare and stripped down, just Dessa’s voice layered so that it’s somehow both crisp and hazy amid the quiet pluck of the guitar.

Fierce and lovely, fractured and strong, A Badly Broken Code demands to be listened to over and over. It’s a rewarding journey to embark upon; Dessa is a singular talent.

Rating: A

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