Memphis is 2019’s most essential American artwork and Coin Coin this decade’s most honest, vital artistic statement.
Starting in 2011 with the release of Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres, American saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts set out on creating a 12-part series of albums as a means for cultural, familial and historical investigation, exploring American and African-American history through the stories of her own life and family. Eight years later and now a quarter of the way through the ambitious series, Roberts is yet to misstep, creating smart, challenging, powerful jazz and experimental narratives along the way.
Memphis sees a return to a free-jazz sonic focus after Coin Coin Chapter Three: River Run Thee emphasized sound collage and ambiance. An oft-changing mixture of free-jazz, gospel and American folk music are the core musical tenants in this chapter. While jazz and gospel are not unfamiliar sounds to the Coin Coin series, as chapters one and two both dealt heavily in those genres respectively, the traditional folk accents give Memphis, like all three albums that preceded it, a sound entirely unto its own and one that is distinctly American.
The two opening movements of Memphis introduce listeners to the lyrical and musical themes that will be present throughout the newest chapter of Roberts’ journey. Those openers lead into the central, nine-minute behemoth “trail of the smiling sphinx,” which injects the regional sounds and instruments—fiddles, jaw harp and electric guitar—with Robert’s more typical jazz and spoken word stylings to create an absolutely sprawling, epic track. The anxious, raucous jazz that immerses most of the seamless composition is broken up during a couple of different sections—”shoes of gold,” with plucked strings, vibraphone and bells is a psychedelic wandering through unclear consciousness and “her mighty waters run” is an affecting spiritual featuring only vocals.
The cyclical, hypnotic, unraveling poetry repeated in portions throughout Memphis finally unveils itself on the songs, “all things beautiful” and “in the fold”—the former uncovering the memory of a father and the latter, after a couple refrains from “This Little Light of Mine,” telling the harsh story of a lost and beaten mother and a little girl on the run from certain horror. Memphis then closes with a cathartic chant of self-assurance and confidence, which builds upon one of the central and continual concepts of the entire Coin Coin series, Roberts grappling with and coming to understand her own identity.
On an album and in a project that is already incredibly flush with ideas an impossibly difficult questions to ponder, the ending of Memphis sees Roberts add yet another layer of inquiry into the effects of recollection on identity by constructing endlessness into the infrastructure of the composition as the humming choir that both introduce and close the album create an unbreakable loop that disrupts the idea of linear narrativity and history. These are the types of astounding, assured artistic flares that possibly make Memphis the most impressive and total piece of the Coin Coin project yet.
It’s genuinely exciting knowing that there are eight pieces still to come in this project. Beyond the engrossing nature of the music, there lies such an emotional weight—all four albums in the Coin Coin series have tackled difficult stories and themes as well as had musical moments that are hard to consume, reflecting the inner trauma of Roberts’ and her ancestors, and the external, all-permeating historical trauma that defines America as a concept and institution. The way in which Roberts approaches identity touches upon the intimate and grand, the historical and folkloric—now four albums through in this immense endeavor, Roberts continues to find ways to interrogate history, memory and identity that are fresh and endlessly astonishing. Memphis is 2019’s most essential American artwork and Coin Coin this decade’s most honest, vital artistic statement.