[Twisted Elegance; 2020]

Simply put, Sevdaliza‘s voice is different. It has eyes—eyes that peer into uncertainty and sadness with stirring bravery – even when they appear beaten and bruised as on the stunning album art of the Iranian-Dutch artist’s second album Shabrang. Just as it did on 2017’s Ison, Sevdaliza’s voice once again reverberates through listeners’ hearts with striking devotion. Unfortunately, Shabrang doesn’t offer much around Sevdaliza’s vocals. At worst, her voice weighs too heavy, and even dozes off as some tracks languidly pass through uninspiring instrumentals, struggling to hold listeners’ attention along the way. 

Though Shabrang sees Sevdaliza move gracefully through different musical styles—from art-pop to trip-hop and a few alternative-R&B moments in between—there is an overtly feathery-soft milieu about this mix that is mostly uncompelling. Listeners will have probably experienced this formula before in artists like FKA Twigs – a common comparison that hasn’t helped Sevdaliza. For any other artist, such a comparison is a compliment at worst, but Sevdaliza is not just any artist. She’s shown the potential of a singular talent through numerous projects, and her debut Ison was an exhilaratingly diverse array of this potential. Unfortunately, Shabrang struggles to offer anything new within the shared space of art-pop and alt-R&B, ultimately failing to push those FKA Twigs comparisons to curbside.

Regardless of the stylistic conventionality of Shabrang, Sevdaliza’s unique story and voice are far too striking for this record to be ignored. In what she has deemed as “a love letter to herself,” this exercise in healing sways between feelings of lingering trauma and the tantalizing possibility of hope.

And yet, the possibility of hope cannot be fathomed without addressing the darkness that prefaces it. The record’s title, Shabrang, is rooted in Persian mythology and is a Farsi phrase (Persian: بهزادشبرنگ) that indirectly translates to “color palette of the night.” The layered meaning makes complete sense considering the shadowy spectrum of despairing emotion expressed throughout this 15-song effort. The despair felt on Shabrang is a result of not only a traumatic childhood – in which, at five years old, she and her family fled Tehran as refugees – but of the pain experienced through and after the release of her last record. The black eye Sevdaliza wears upon her face on Shabrang’s album art is a reminder of the anxiety and insecurity that Ison and other life events levied in the past.  The songs themselves, however, exert these emotions in real-time.

Tracks like “Joanna”, “All Rivers Once”, and “Habibi” are far more than simple reminders of Sevdaliza’s nagging insecurities and despondent memories. The smoldering “Joanna” perspires with unrequited love, but seems to also unearth a feeling far more insidious: “Desert woman / Veiled in silence / I was so wrong / Shame invaded truth.” Regarding the track, Sevdaliza comments that “Joanna” is “a reflection of the unbearable suffering crawling into our lives in different shapes.” Though similarly brooding, “All Rivers Once” is more pointed, as it sees Sevdaliza yearnfully plead in a voice numbed by the world around her: “I don’t want to feel pain,” she repeats, “pour the light in me.” 

This uncertainty and inescapability are even more profound on the beautiful piano piece “Habibi”, whose refrain witnesses her cry out in a bone-shaking tremble: “Is there anyone out there / To get me out of my head?” Sevdaliza’s longing for clarity and overwhelming self-doubt rises to the surface elsewhere, but it is through these tracks where it is brought to bear.

A light at the end of the tunnel coincides with the album’s darkness—a flickering lamp, even. In “Lamp Lady”, Sevdaliza delivers that hope and levity from the gloom and overwhelming insecurity that is laid out on the previously-mentioned tracks. Though its acoustic trip-hop instrumental sounds as if it was produced under murky waters, Sevdaliza’s voice of reason rises to the top with beautiful clarity as she entertains the possibility of different realities if certain happenings did not occur, like fleeing Tehran as a refugee. Maybe she wouldn’t have evolved into the voice we’ve come to know her to be? Regardless of the ‘would haves’ and the ‘could haves’, there is a heartwarming sense that the singer-songwriter is grateful for the life she has been given—she is nonetheless hopeful. 

“Wallflower” expresses a similar sentiment of reassurance as she comforts herself in her anxious, introverted nature that “everything has its time, girl… everyone has to ride…” This is Sevdaliza’s most empowering moment on the album, as she finds momentary self-acceptance – but it’s not like it wasn’t already clear that she is empowering individual. In fact, Sevdaliza inspires through the mere fact that she is doing this whole music thing by herself. She releases her own music and – most impressively – writes, produces, and mixes it all herself (with a little helping hand of her long-time friend and collaborator Mucky). Sevdaliza is as self-made as they come. Unfortunately, being so indebted to the process, the production, and promotional aspects of a project with this many expectations surrounding it has its detrimental effects. 

It is admirable to make a record all by oneself, but the results could be messy and superfluous without other hands involved. That being said, the most obvious deterring factor of this Shabrang is, of course, the length. With an album that aims to be haunting and ethereal in nature, it’s never a wise decision to jam-pack it with 15 tracks that all more or less borrow from the same sluggishly homogenized atmosphere. If Sevdaliza would have cut five songs from the tracklist, most notably the previously released (but slightly modified) “Human Nature”, we could have a perfect record in our hands. Though “Human Nature”, and the likes of “No Way” and “Dormant” are beautiful moments by themselves, they fail to stick out within this listening experience. 

With a keen eye for detail, an incredible voice that she manages to produce to various otherworldly results, and an incredibly poetic way with storytelling, Sevdaliza has all the parts and vision to create something magnificent. Still, it seems she struggles to weave the pieces into a cohesively haunting experience that thrills to full effect. She accomplished this to a slight degree on her last record, but this is not the case with Shabrang.

In an interview with Forbes earlier this year, Sevdaliza said, “as an artist, you’re always rebelling against yourself.” Though this should always be the case for any artist, maybe Sevdaliza went too far into the ethereal and amorphous this time around. In all of its slow-moving beauty, Shabrang never takes off as one would hope, even if it feels like one of those records that you’re just supposed to like. Perhaps this record needs time to strike the chord it was supposed to? It’s easy to envision this album’s meandering, slow-burn nature eventually searing a deeply memorable mark. Unfortunately, Shabrang, as of now is a mere sunburn—a refracted ray of promise that has hummed below the surface since the start of Sevdaliza’s music career.