Growing up, were you ever fêted for your quinceañera or sweet sixteen? How about at age 25? Did you feel the first creeping taste of a midlife crisis, or did that abstract panic come at age 30 or 40? Considering those questions and many others, María Usbeck now presents us with her latest release, Envejeciendo, a subtle, quirky concept album examining the existential quandary of aging.
Ecuador-born, NYC-based Usbeck is no stranger to walking the road less traveled. Her 2016 Caroline Polacheck co-produced album Amparo was a near-anthropological examination of her ethnic heritage, with lyrics written in English, Spanish and Quichua. For Envejeciendo, Usbeck trusts her instincts once again, this time writing nostalgic, if at times cheeky, songs that dissect profound concepts of memory and astute observations of how our eating and exercise routines evolve over time.
Take “Un Cabello Gris” for instance, where Usbeck conjures one of the most visible signs of aging – our changing hair color. On first listen, she seems to poke fun at our shallow preoccupations with fading youth, yet a sense of foreboding emanates from her gauzy vocals as she describes hair turning grey, brittle and eventually falling out. The duality of humor and unavoidable reality is a recurring theme throughout Envejeciendo, most clearly heard on disquieting musical daydream, “Retirement Home.” Unfolding like family day at the senior center, Usbeck takes on the persona of a granny guiding the listener through the joys of living by the sea and fabulous in-house recreational facilities. Later references to dentures, pool aerobics and spacey ignorance of whether her family has come to visit illustrate the unforgiving wear of time, as well as the loneliness senior citizens often experience while living in retirement communities.
Usbeck’s use of humor should not be interpreted as flippant, but as a coping mechanism to assuage our fear of incrementally decaying physical and mental faculties. On “Secret in Japan,” she searches for the magic elixir granting people longer, healthier lifespans. At first she posits the answer might be found in balanced eating or clean air, eventually conceding she simply doesn’t know.
Much of the album’s emotional heart is rooted in Usbeck’s relationship with her late grandmother, splicing clips of recorded conversations into standout tracks “Obscuro Obituario” and “Amor Anciano.” The songs explore distant memories of love and companionship, romances that never were, and how destiny can separate soul mates just as easily as it can reunite them. Doubt, regret and nostalgia are also part of the aging process, lest we forget.
Envejeciendo’s constant looking forward and backward is also a key influence behind its production, drawing from futuristic synthpop trends and Usbeck’s teenage obsession with techno and house music. Album opener “Adios A Mi Memoria” steeps in a restrained 90s club beat, while robust terminus “Nostalgia” creates an atmospheric limbo of textured synths and slowly dissipating melodies. If you’ve enjoyed recent releases by Blood Orange, Toro y Moi and Robyn, it’s more than likely María Usbeck’s downtempo, philosophical fantasies will make a delightful addition to your music library.
María Usbeck’s Envejeciendo is out today, with a special live performance at Brooklyn’s The Sultan Room at The Turk’s Inn on September 4.