Album Review: Chime by Dessa

DESSA

Chime is a new album by rapper, singer, songwriter and spoken word artist, Dessa. It’s powerful, deep and takes several listens to truly appreciate.

Dessa is an artist known for complex storytelling set to experimental beats, and, in Chime, gives us more of the alternative hip hop that we’ve come to love from her and the Doomtree collective she’s part of. The 11 tracks on it – all varied in theme and tempo – move from eerie to tender, and incorporate a wide range of topics.

Ride, the first track on the album, kicks things off on a trippy note. We’re given cigarette smoke, “street lights on wet pavements” and the offer of a journey somewhere sinister:

First the sirens then the lights

That looks like your ride –

Your ride’s coming

5 out of 6 ups the ante, lyrically and sonically, and is centred on Dessa’s creative accomplishments. She tells us she’s a “triple threat”, highlighting her different skillsets, and aligns her rebirth to that of a phoenix.

In Fire Drills – an Arabic sounding tune, with a kickass bassline – Dessa calls on god to count her ribs, as a reference to the biblical misconception that Eve was created using one of Adam’s ribs. Not satisfied with the claim, she hits back: “Tell Patient Zero (Adam) he can have his rib back”.

It’s intelligent song-writing like this which makes Dessa such a captivating musician to listen to. Rather than rap about her situation frankly, she instead uses rich imagery to contextualise what she’s feeling on a large scale.

In Velodrome, for example, she calls on the late Catholic priest Thomas Aquinas to answer a pointless philosophical question, in existence for centuries, while other, more important matters go ignored:

Aquinas, call on me
How many angels on the

Head of your pin?
Anybody in stilettos can

Answer that old thing

A velodrome is an arena for track cycling, and, in this song refers to the paths we follow in life and have no control over, other than the journeys we make across them. The “angels” question merely highlights how absurd our existence is.

Good Grief – the second song on the album with a music video – feels strangely more upbeat, despite its title. Dessa’s voice is high-pitched to begin with, almost angelic sounding, and offers hope through the words: “Good grief’s the one that’s in your past”. The instrumental is, likewise, light and bouncy.

For Dessa, good grief’s detoxifying. It heals us and provides direction through dark times.

I want that good grief

The one that heals me

That leaves me clarified by fire

When I’m burned clean

Tempered by light and heat

Part of the trade off, she hints, is having your suffering brought out into the open. It might be painful to begin with, but, in the end it’s necessary:

And secrets don’t like to be kept

All mine jumped over the fence

I guess I should be upset

But I’m in my nightgown on the lawn

Thinking, better that they’re gone

Boy Crazy brings familiar talk of love and infatuation, again, with a cheery beat to match. The fondness she speaks of is a clumsy, tender sort:

Dreaming on a future with you 

Like some amateur 

In plastic pearls

 Jumprope is as playful as the name suggests. A throwback to an old children’s game, revisited through the mind of an adult. A jump rope, in this instance, can be read as metaphor for the backward steps we take as adults when making stupid decisions.

Wake up to find work

And look for love

But when that rope comes

Round you jump

Those who stand by the rope, like the “girls on the block” are merely stuck in the past and can’t move on.

Half of You – one of the final tracks on the album – is a stand-out tune that opens with a beautiful description of the heart, as an organ trapped between love and loss that performs two simple functions: beating and attacking. Depending on the company you keep, it could do more of one than the other.

In Dessa’s case, she’s asking for the part of a guy that keeps her heart healthy. Not the side which makes her miserable:

Maybe I’m happier with half of you

Than I’d be with clean

But empty rooms

In the mess it’s made of us

There’s still so much to lose

What she’s also saying is that she can’t get rid of her past self. Rather, it’s a “half” of her that people just have to put up with:

I can’t remove the screws

Of my own youth

Can’t just pull out all the

Fuses and start new

Say When is a fitting closing song that reduces the overall pace of the album down to a gentle piano melody. Dessa’s vocals take on an ethereal feel as she reflects on the battles she’s won and how she’s not ready to give up just yet.

It’s followed by I hope I’m wrong – a final call to a special someone she loved and lost under seemingly tragic circumstances:

It gets no better than the way you went

Money in the bank, sons

Around your bed

I know I should feel lucky

But I’m just feeling spent

She contemplates what it might be like to swap places with him, and remembers his final words to her, hoping that he’s still alive in heaven watching down on her.

If you don’t feel even the tiniest bit sad by the end of Chime, then you clearly haven’t listened to it properly. As poignant releases go, it’s an album that stirs the mind, body and soul and makes us question the relationship between them.

Download the album now on Apple Music. Alternatively you can catch Dessa live on stage in April. CLICK HERE for details. 

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