The 79-year-old singer Elza Soares was in London last week, wearing a purple wig and a skintight leather dress as she sang from a golden throne on stage at the Barbican. I missed the gig, but I’ve been belatedly catching up with A Mulher do Fim do Mundo, the album she released this summer, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to end up very high on my best-of-the-year list.
“The Woman at the End of the World”: it sounds like a film by Pedro Almodóvar, and the music is not short of the kind of drama the Spanish director would relish. The project was conceived and produced in Rio de Janeiro, Soares’s home city, by Guilherme Kastrup, with the aid of Celso Sim, Romulo Fróes and a group of musicians and songwriters who collaborated to create a wonderfully modern setting for a voice that carries the marks of age but also an ageless energy.
Having begun with Soares singing a ballad called “Coraçoa do Mar” unaccompanied, the album ends with a minute and a half of silence interrupted by the distant sound of her singing to herself, as if you’d just left her house and, as you walked away, could hear her starting to get on with her daily tasks. In between comes music animated by some sort of special life-force, a mixture of samba and trip-hop and new wave and other stuff, brilliantly focused into something with great variety but a pungently identifiable character.
If I had to make a comparison, I’d say it mixes the elegant precision of Paula Morelenbaum’s great album Berimbaum, a 2004 updating of bossa nova, with some of the glorious anarchy of Os Mutantes: a rough poetry of wild guitars, horns anchored by a growling baritone saxophone, chattering (sometimes battering) percussion, songs very explicitly celebrating a raw need for sex (“Pra Fuder”), describing a police raid on a crack house (“Benedita”), and issuing threats to an abusive lover (“Maria da Vila Matilde”: “When the cops come, I’ll show them my black and blue arm / I’ll show them your cards, your game, your loaded dice…”). And a voice to break your heart. A magnificent piece of work, all told.
* The Woman at the End of the World is released on the Mais um Discos label. The photograph of Elza Soares is by Alexander Eca.