Why did the lockdowers outlaw live music? For the same reasons the Taliban in Afghanistan and the slave traders in the Caribbean did. The arts are subversive by definition: they encourage people to question their situations, and the lockdowners won’t settle for anything less than total obedience to their most egregious and ridiculous whims. In that sense, Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat’s new album Enlighten the Night – streaming at Spotify – is subversive. Using the words of both iconic Persian poets as well as contemporary lyricists, she celebrates freedom and hope for the future in the face of increasingly grim odds. If there was ever an album for our time, this is it. And what a great title!
Vahdat is joined by a familiar supporting cast of pianist Tord Gustavsen, bass player Gjermund Silset and drummer Kenneth Ekornes, playing arrangements by Atabak Elyasi. They open with The Act of Freedom, a spare, steadily shuffling, bittersweetly minor-key celebration of self-determintion (that’s a very prosaic summary of Mohammad Ebrahim Jafari’s lyric).
Vahdat’s clear, wounded voice channels desolation and longing over graceful solo bass in the album’s second track, Where Is the Home of the Wind, with a lyric by Forough Farrokhzad which could be about a lost love or a lost world – or both. She channels a more muted, haunting resignation, matched by Gustavsen’s haunting, quasi-bolero sparseness in Farewell, a setting of a well-known desert tableau by Saadi.
Vahdat’s aching melismas flutter over stately piano in Precious Cup, a reflection on impermanence and the first of a handful of Omar Khayyam settings. The second, The Roses and the Meadow follows a similar theme more somberly. The most fleeting – and arguably optimistic – of all is If I Were God. Light electroacoustic touches come to the foreground in Lovelorn, which is basically 180 degrees the opposite.
Bootarab – a Rumi poem celebrating enlightened leaders, party musicians and much more – has a balletesque bounce and oud voicings from the piano along with a touch of jazz. The album’s title track, with an allusive Jafari lyric about a triumphantly prowling bird of prey, has otherworldly kamancheh leaps and bounds from guest Shervin Mohajer.
Vahdat’s distantly imploring nuance matches the subtle hope for solidarity in Nima Youshij’s poem The Moon Beams, one of the album’s most Arabic-tinged track. The glimmer of hope in Ney Davoud – the album’s most skeletally epic track and a lost-love lament – is much the same. Gustavsen’s use of close harmonies to mimic the microtones of classical Persian modes is masterful, as is Silset’s crepuscular bowing.
The Dawn, with a lyric by Ahmad Shamloo, is the album’s most grimly metaphorical moment. Vahdat imbues the closing lyric, Simin Behbehani’s calmly defiant I Will Build You Again, My Country with guarded optimism over Ekornes’ clip-clop beat and Mohajer’s plaintive kamancheh. She couldn’t have picked a better moment to release this austere, inspiring record. You will see this on the best albums of 2020 page in December if such a page can exist.