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Laura Mvula, ‘Sing to the Moon’ (RCA Victor)

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: May 14, 2013
Label: RCA Victor

Sing to the Moon begins with a florid blossom of vocal harmonies, of many Laura Mvulas, the English singer’s flawless voice multi-tracked heaven-high: “Our love is… Like the morning dew.” It’s a bit of a set-up, this huge sweeping pinnacle of romance so pure, the heart swelling with possibility, because then, a second later, she bursts that bubble and reveals that she’s actually at the bottom, enduring a moment of devastating clarity: “Then I realized I didn’t belong to you.” There once was a tether of love — or maybe worse, a mistaken belief in one — but that’s all over now.

The album’s arc spans something not quite like a breakup — more of a 12-track emotional evolution with Technicolor orchestral-pop accompaniment, Mvula confronting the sad fact that there’s no fixing what’s broken, there’s no love to return to. “Like the Morning Dew” establishes a theme of unreciprocated love that continues on “Make Me Lovely,” her voice swooping around a flourish of harp and further illustrating the situation’s one-sidedness with the line, “I can’t make you love me / You can’t make me lovely”; on heartbreaking ballad “Father, Father,” the rising chorus pleads, “Let me love you!” The album’s first half is suffused with a longing that flits between hopeful and resigned, unsure which is the worse fate.

At other times, she sounds a little exasperated — mournful even — but throughout, her elegant arrangements remain taut and full of energy. Mvula has termed her sound “gospeldelic,” and Sing to the Moon certainly wears the influence of her years singing with a gospel chorus (see “Father, Father”), but her voice also carries shades of jazz vocalists from Nina Simone to Nancy Wilson, and the orchestration is heavy — drums are the only rock instrument apparent. “Green Garden,” with its martial beat and staggered layers of ooh-wah vocals making like synths, is the most contemporary-feeling track, the string section temporarily sequestered; amid the sweet, lonely-girl appeal of “Is There Anybody Out There?” you imagine her reveling in her solitude, singing into a night sky. The song hushes to just the thrum of an upright bass and the twinkle of bells, then rises up with woodwinds, harp, a newly emboldened full string section — the effect is immense, almost overwhelming in its lushness.

Mvula’s got a university degree in composition and never intended to put it to pop use, but we’re fortunate she did. There’s been a steady flow of throwback divas crossing the pond since Lily Allen broke big, and she certainly rides that wave, but Sing to the Moon is much more forward-facing than retrospective. Though it’s largely pre-occupied with memories — “I believed in you, then,” she sings on “Is Anybody Out There?” — it would be hard to call it sentimental. That vulnerability turns into an empowered toughness at album’s end, our heroine winging her way out of the bleakness and into the light. The album’s denouement, “Flying Without You,” has, appropriately, a jazz funeral feel to it, all carnival brass and drum line as Mvula celebrates, joyous in what she’s laid to rest: “I was a girl in love… I’m fine without you!” The transformation is complete.