When the fans of Sufjan Stevens got to hear Illinois and see his resulting tour, they were introduced to the incomparable Shara Worden. As the `head cheerleader’ of the ‘Illinoisemakers,’ Worden was a shining star, full of energy and with her multi-instrumental display, the true backbone of the band. Let me assure you, however, that even if you were as impressed with Ms. Worden as I was, you hadn’t seen even the tiniest sliver of the talent she possesses. For that, you absolutely must hear her debut with the new moniker, My Brightest Diamond. Bring Me the Workhorse is an album for the ages, a dramatic piece of theatrical rock that will set your hair on end, tingle your spine, and knock you off your feet. Ms. Worden is what I’d describe as a quadruple threat. Not only is she an incredible songwriter, she is also a truly gifted musician, playing nearly every instrument on the album, a powerhouse of a classically trained voice, that just seems otherworldly coming out of that compact of a frame, but she’s also a classic beauty. I didn’t really know what to expect from Sufjan’s spunky little cheerleader on her Asthmatic Kitty debut, but I can tell you that I wasn’t expecting this, an album that is challenging and yet accessible, fluid and yet diverse, in short, one of the best albums of this or any other year.
For years now, I’ve considered Jeff Buckley to be the epitome of the best vocal and musical talent. Since his untimely death, many critics have used his name as a comparison countless times, yet I’ve never felt it was truly deserved. At long last, there is Shara Worden, the first artist to evoke the same feelings in me that Jeff Buckley has on countless occasions. Worden’s own words could be used to describe the overwhelming emotions caused by her own music as she sings in the opening track, “Something of an End,” “It was beautiful and terrible.” When I use the word terrible to describe My Brightest Diamond, I use it in the sense that it is fearsome and awe-inspiring. There is a touch of menace and darkness to the songs of MBD, darkness you might not expect with song titles like “Magic Rabbit,” one of the more menacing songs on the record. Worden is able to combine that beauty and frightfully dramatic into some of the most compelling music in the last decade. The previously mentioned “Something of an End” is a spectacular opener, immediately showcasing Worden’s rich voice of extraordinary range as well as her considerable talent for arrangement and theatricality. The ante is increased as the album continues with “Golden Star,” finding her voice stretched even further and her music just as undeniable.
“Gone Away” recalls some of the best work from Beth Gibbons of Portishead, ethereal and timeless, but other songs might have you shouting out other vocal similarities such as Kate Bush, Fiona Apple or Nina Simone, who happens to also (coincidentally?) be one of Jeff Buckley’s major influences and muses. “Dragonfly” and “The Good & the Bad Guy” both recall another stunning voice in modern music that stands as a true example of the brilliance of combining the classic with the new, Antony & the Johnsons. “Freak Out” shows another side of Shara Worden, one more in line with P. J. Harvey, threatening and balancing on a knife’s edge with moments of sheer abandon in the chorus. Because of the strength of Worden’s immaculate voice, one might tend to overlook her equally magnificent guitar playing. Between the all out rocking of the first two tracks and the gorgeous subtlety of “We Were Sparkling,” Worden puts on a showcase for guitar enthusiasts. Again, the last time I heard such mastery of both instrument and voice was the legendary Jeff Buckley. In “Disappear,” Worden sings of growing weary of modern day annoyances, which is similar to Björk’s sentiments in her exquisite “Hyperballad.”
Just when you think you couldn’t be any more impressed, then comes the last four songs on the album, beginning with the dark treatise on death, “The Robin’s Jar.” Worden reflects on her first lessons in the loss of life with both a robin and the seeming death of a close friend. The song is incredibly powerful in its simplicity. “Magic Rabbit” is its chilling equal, touching on her mother’s death. “The Good & the Bad Guy” has that Antony / Simone flavor, slow and deliberate, yet richly textured and arranged for maximum effect. The album ends with “Workhorse,” a treatise on transitory youth with the allegory of a horse past its prime. I find the song ironic considering that Worden proves herself anything but an aging workhorse on this stellar debut. Instead, she shows us an artist in her absolute prime.
I’ve already reviewed over 125 albums so far this year, with many more yet to come, but there’s one thing I can assure you. I’ve never heard quite anything like Bring Me the Workhorse, nor the talent behind this absolute masterpiece, Shara Worden, save for a few artists that she can now proudly call her equals. Sufjan Stevens has found quite a few decent bands for his label’s roster, but none, save maybe for himself, are as impressive as My Brightest Diamond. Now removed from the peppy pyramid that was the Illinoisemakers, and opening for Stevens on his latest tour, I’m actually looking more forward to seeing Ms. Worden perform than I am Sufjan. Considering how big a fan I am of his music, that’s really saying something! With her MBD debut, Bring Me the Workhorse, Shara Worden has created an astonishing collection of music that could remain in constant rotation in my CD player for years to come.