Nerissa Campbell’s triumphant third album opens with the song “Bottle Notes,” which greets listeners with a little over 20 seconds of Campbell’s acapella before a being joined by a motley assembly of voices and musicians. The song, unexpected and stunning, weaves us through a drunken evening of rapture and desperation. It closes with “4 o’clock in the morning and your life has been spared.” Luckily for us, Campbell has spared us neither pleasure nor pain, firmly setting the soundscape for Blue Shadows as a spectacular treat.
The album is built on the tension of dreams and desires, exploring the stark realities of devotions left unrequited. Similar to Sherwood Anderson or James Joyce who turned their respective cities into characters, Campbell has created an album with New York City as its predominant character. What follows the opening song is “Canal Street,” referring to one of New York City’s vibrant cultural centers, flamboyantly showcasing Campbell’s raw and expressive voice.
Campbell knows the truth contains shadows of darkness. So when she sings of these shadows encompassing the emotive range from despair to tenderness, we are pierced with the poignancy of our mere existence. The album reaches its emotional height with the moody and evocative “Leaving N.Y.” Quiet piano and soft brushes on the cymbal, followed by the bass, lays down the foundation for Campbell's sultry croon “After you where do I go?” Campbell and her band capture the struggle, the desperation, and the anguish of all who have come to New York with dreams of artistic freedom, only to find themselves fighting for survival while the dream remains tenuous at best.
If one thinks Blue Shadows is only a melancholic affair, simply listen to “Powder Burn” or “Don’t Look Back” where Campbell’s voice mischievously coos in simple abandon as the upright bass makes it impossible to resist finger snapping. She coolly sings “let those black birds sing” – but I say silence those black birds and turn Campbell's music up all the louder. The recording is pristine and in those silent moments we begin to comprehend that Campbell has given us a complexly exotic and unforgettable masterpiece.