Santigold Dares a Brush with the Unknown on Spirituals

Most pop music revolves around the examination of the self: Songwriters build soundscapes to score the course of our relationships, the moments where we reckon with our emotions and our impressions of the world around us, bearing it all in hopes that we’ll see our reflection in the mirror they hold up to us. Most write to examine the artist as a human being, lowering themselves to our level in terms of universal emotions, but over the past 15 years, Santi White has searched for a way to do the reverse—to capture the human as an artist. Even her work that could be considered “confessional” elevates her first-person narrative to something bigger than herself, as if ego death is essential to saving her creation.

Following the dissolution of her band Stiffed in 2006, with whom labels told her that “Black, female, punk artists would just never happen,” she emerged as a solo artist under the moniker Santogold (later changed to Santigold) during the lawless musical peak of MySpace. The thrashing, electronic upheaval of her debut single “Creator” established White’s art-over-ego ethos, but its b-side, “L.E.S. Artistes,” an evergreen, biting critique of faux-bohemian social climbers in New York’s music scene, outlined the self-sacrifice she was willing to make: “I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up / If I can stand up mean for the things that I believe.”

Pulling as much from dancehall vocalists like Sister Nancy as she does the weirdo art-punk of a band like Devo or the early hip-hop she heard growing up in Philadelphia, each Santigold release builds upon a collage of ever-evolving influences in her quest for something beyond the individual. Her first full-length project in four years, Spirituals, completes the next logical step in that evolution. Both the hooky pop confections of prior studio album 99¢ and the blaring sirens over Afro-Caribbean-inspired beats of her 2018 mixtape I Don’t Want: The Gold Fire Sessions are absent. Still, the final results are far from minimal, building temples to that same transcendence White’s been chasing since the beginning, with layers of percussion and manipulated vocals coloring the final product. With a stacked team of producers and collaborators behind her (including Rostam, Dre Skull, Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and SBTRKT, to name a few), the placement of each beat or vocal melody feels intentional, with White’s distinct delivery acting as the glue that binds the whole thing into a cohesive project worth sitting with (or dancing to).

By the artist’s own account, Spirituals is a reinvention, both of Santigold as a creative project and of the type of music that has historically sustained people enduring hardship. Referencing the spirituals sung by enslaved Black people with the title, her version of transcendence this time around not only rises above genre, but also above the lack of physical freedom that she had experienced in quarantine while caring for her three children. At its best, the record reaches that peak of peering over what holds its creator in captivity, ascending past rigid genre descriptors to create something familiar to fans while still pushing the envelope.

Opener “My Horror” creates a clear tie between the tropical atmosphere of I Don’t Want and the darkness of the songs to follow; vocals that sound like animatronic angels sigh against clean, echoing guitar as White recounts the effects of her unending captivity (“Hey you, hey you / Think I got a, a hole in my head / I think all the numbness finally sank in / It’s making my head decay, head decay”) before the song cuts itself off abruptly. The piercing synths of “Ain’t Ready” and hypnotic groove of “No Paradise” carry a similar tension between music and lyrics, with the latter building a monument to human resilience while introducing hook after hook interwoven into group chants. “People suffering, they suffering / Down and we keep shuffling,” she sings over the deceptively buoyant beat, “Don’t know where but go-going / There’s power in our struggle.”

Some of the album’s most exciting turns come when sonic dissonance stands toe-to-toe with the lyrics, rather than masking White’s frustration, including the “future sound of punk rock” she introduces on lead single “High Priestess.” White taunts her opposition over whirring bass, sputtering electronic clicks and cooing call-and-response backing vocals that tease right along with her: “Hey pretty / Awww, you really want my thunder / I guard the gates here / Guard the secrets while you wonder.” Perhaps the strongest individual moment on the record arrives with the thudding punk bassline and angry distortion of closer “Fall First,” propelling the lyrics’ exuberance into another atmospheric layer in a way that makes the whole thing feel terrifyingly alive. These tracks hold the sound of Santigold’s evolution snapping into place, massive in their scope and breathless in their execution. To inspire movement from her listener is at the forefront of her process, and tracks like these make for a shock to the system, willing your feet to move with the thrum of your heart.

Spirituals is an album that takes admirably big swings in its desire to shake all constraints off, and inevitably, there is messiness in the movement. The risks pay off, but leave some of the tracks in the album’s middle stretch to play supporting roles. Though they could likely be standouts for an artist with a less remarkable career, and are certainly still enjoyable in the context of the album, they feel like they’re going through the motions compared to the more daring tracks surrounding them. In the most glaring instance, “Shake” feels like a quick, throwaway interlude in comparison to the drowsy piano balladry of “The Lasty” that follows it. The latter feels like unexplored territory, allowing White’s creative fitfulness to shift her perspective in a way that feels daring. As she’s sung about for the last decade and a half, it’s those stretches into the near-impossible that allow her work to transcend. To wade in the comfort of what she’s done before produces familiar, though not spectacular, results.

Perhaps the record is best understood as a “pandemic album,” a knee-jerk reaction artifact of a certain time where fear rules all—but that would undermine its power as a broader artistic statement. It exists in a realm of lived panic, oozing bravado in the face of the world that is certainly still falling apart around us. In the album’s most electrifying moments, Santigold is staging her evolution right before our eyes, letting the collateral damage of her attempts to transcend feel as intentional as anything else we hear. Less a snapshot of the end of the world than that of a new beginning for Santigold as a creative project, Spirituals marks another step in a process of elevation: to make something bigger than Santi White, bigger than any individual person who listens to it. To make something worth craning your neck at, beaming like a ball of light above us when we’re so entrenched in darkness on a daily basis, is an achievement in itself. When Santigold manages to transcend, she does so dazzlingly.

Elise Soutar is a writer, musician, friend of witches, wannabe punk and annoying New Yorker. You can watch her share the same pictures of David Bowie over and over again on Twitter @moonagedemon.