An inventive, probing, and reflective examination of identity...

Zara McFarlane is one of this country’s most affecting vocalists, someone whose technical abilities are matched to a deep of feeling that few can rival. Her catalogue to date delves into her jazz roots, splicing this with her Afro-Caribbean heritage, resulting in a potent hybrid that deals with the post-bop lineage, soundsystem culture, and forms of Jamaican worship.

New album ‘Songs Of An Unknown Tongue’ is outwardly a departure, placing Zara’s vocals in an electronic context. Guided by production from Kwake Bass and Wu-Lu, it dives deeper than ever before into her background and history, while expressing past aspects of music influence in a different way.

The album opens with the zen-like calm that exudes from ‘Everything Is Connected’ before diving into the twisted electronic shapes that surround ‘Black Treasure’, a kind of digital highlife interwoven around Zara’s emphatic vocal. ‘Native Nomad’ feels like a personal distillation of her search for meaning, utilising the resources of the National Library of Jamaica and the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston.

Nothing on this new album feels rushed, a nuanced, detailed project from a voice to cherish. ‘Broken Water’ sits on a bed of vocal harmonies, twisting and distorting into waves of sound. ‘Run Of Your Life’ has a deeply percussive crackle, while ‘State Of Mind’ contains some of Zara McFarlane’s most revealing, explicitly personal lyricism yet.

The projects ends with the electronic rush of ‘Future Echoes’, blending this mosaic of digitalism with heavenly brass inflections. In a way, it sums up the path this record takes as a whole – there’s a feeling that by going further and further out, Zara finds a way to return, to truly know herself for the first time.

Thoughtful, innovative, and reflective, ‘Songs Of An Unknown Tongue’ is a special record, one that offers up questions and revelations in equal measure.

8/10

Words: Robin Murray

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