The Monocle (Aurora Nealand), “KindHumanKind” (Independent)

The stunning first album from Aurora Nealand’s solo, art pop–driven Monocle project opens with a somber series of bells tolling, interspersed with angsty snippets of sound that feel cinematic—a call to attention that pulls images and hints of narrative into the mind’s eye of the listener. That call to attention is key. With KindHumanKind, Nealand, a centrifugal force on New Orleans’ traditional jazz, modern jazz and rock scenes, incorporates more elements from her vast artistic arsenal than on any recording to date. The results are electrifying.

Using accordion, along with drums, guitar, piano, organ, saxophones, flute, trumpet, percussion, voice and powerful lyrics that unfold like poetry, Nealand explores big questions about humanity, gender, mental health, power and more. How do we deal with time, memory and loss? How we take responsibility for one another and for our words and for ourselves? What happens when we don’t? References to demagoguery and lies—and a powerful treatise on whistleblowing in America—contextualize these questions within today’s divisive, one percenters-versus-everyone-else climate, although Nealand writes in the liner notes that “this music was written and fleshed out over the past few years.”

KindHumanKind isn’t all weighty issues and darkness, though; there are also plenty of moments of sheer musical beauty, many of which ride a tide of contrasts. On “Shall Not Want,” a soft and eerie accordion motif accented by percussive clangs feeds the state of unease that permeates much of the album. Above it, Nealand sings with crisp phrasing in tender tones about relishing a feeling she’ll force herself to let go. Before long, both her voice and the music that accompanies it has turned from vulnerable to triumphant, as Nealand cries out above the pulsing current of drums. The determination in her lyrics, along with the music, becomes anthemic by the end.

A tinkering, childlike piano on “Arcade Lights” sets up a less tangible contrast. What at first sounds like a nursery rhyme becomes almost an allegory about a god who casts down angels for acting on their impulses to protect and love others. On the lovely, mind-gone-awry “Bells,” a woman wrestles with her thoughts—murmurs we can hear beneath the main vocal as she parses loss: “Goodbye was all you wrote upon the wrecking ball,” Nealand sings, “Goodbye, goodbye/ I loved us most of all.” This is multi-layered, moving pop that demands we think about what it means to be human in 2017. In a nutshell: Wow.