Flores: The Lives They Left
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Following up her widely regarded American Dirt, El Paso R&B songstress Flores brings The Lives They Left, a deep dive into her earth-brown blues.
The Lives they Left is sepia-toned blues, heavy R&B laden with the history of Flores' people. The love, blood and sacrifice of her mother and their ancestors. It is the culmination of Flores' work up to this point. A poignant amalgamation of stories, lessons learned and heartache that provide a visceral backstory to the artist.
It's fitting that the cover is the same as the American Dirt maxi-single (an faded family photo of her and her siblings in front of an old red car). The history of her people is drenched in the sangre of those still dealing with the repercussions of imperialism. The colonization of Mexico still manifesting in violence, neglect and a war on women. Still in these spoiled days, there are beautiful moments that Flores remembers with fondness ("915"), as if looking at a faded picture of family and friends.
The album leans into nostalgia. Second track "Desaije" spotlights the voice of Flores' mother talking about her own mother and father working on a farm. It's a warm reminder of simpler times, though "simple" is almost a state of mind more than an actual state of being. Nothing could be more complicated than providing for one's family in a time and place where options are limited. Instead of trying to construct a similar story, Flores allows listeners a glimpse into her life, gifts us a powerful moment between mother an daughter that sets the tone for the rest of the album.
The Lives They Lost is an album about hands, weathered, worn and warm holding Flores up. Arms wide and welcoming enveloping her in a security that she never forgot. "American Dirt" is a powerful love note to Mexico and her hometown of El Paso. To the sacrifice of old hands, tired arms, strong pride in the rebel yell: "Viva Mexico!"
Then Flores leans into the microphone as a guitar plucks a simple melody, the warble of traffic on dirt roads, bloody water, the afterbirth of police brutality. A young woman cries over the broken and bullet-riddled body of someone she loves. "They took him away," someone says, voice exhausted from the constant pain. A Mexican lullaby underneath Flores' sharp indictment of the authority figures that reigned terror upon her family, her people. From the fire and pain of "Sangre," Flores proclaims her pride in her brown skin, the soul of a brown people continuously pillaged of their heritage, but never beaten down to the point of defeat.
This is an album about pride, constant rebirth from ashes. Each track on The Lives They Left is a love note to some part of her. Family, love lost, herself. The entire first half of the album is an act of rebellion against a system that loves the hint of sex her body suggests but despises her womanhood, her brown skin, her heritage. (They want our rhythm, but none of our blues.) She takes the Janet Jackson approach and loads the front end with music and themes that most mainstream artists are afraid to approach so boldly. She said if she was going to go down this path, it had to be on her own terms. And her terms are honesty at all costs.
That's not to say that Flores is only an agent of rebellion (though she most certainly is that and then some). She is a woman, she is human. She has a heart that yearns and aches for love. She expresses this yearning on the second half of the album, leading with "Mayahuel." She matches the same passion and fire for representing her people with a ferocity for her own heart and soul, stolen and broken by an old lover who dared to "break [her] heart in Mexico."
Her voice aches and croons, a thick teardrop giving water to the smokiness of her tone. Flores sings in her throat, not so unlike the Indigenous people of her motherland. Her brand of R&B is unique in that it completely embraces the heartache, both rhythm and blues entangling in what amounts to angry, unbridled, emotional sex. This coupling of musical ideologies works perfectly for the deceptive gentleness of Flores' voice. As she questions, "Did you love me, or did you fake it" ("Nopales"), listeners are left floating on the mist of her heavily reverbed lament, poured into her stream of tears.
In this part of the album she channels Lauryn Hill, painting pictures in deep blues and heavy shadows (much in the same way Ms. Hill constructed the interludes of her album and further painted a picture of youthful infatuation and regret in "Ex-Factor").
The brilliance of The Lives They Left lay in its simplicity. Flores and longtime collaborator Maths Times Joy didn't try to reinvent the genre, didn't attempt to overtax the listener with the need to be "modern" or "on-trend." The music is grasped from the earth between her fingers and dancing in the wind in whichever direction nature chooses. Natural, that's what this is. An album that doesn't work too hard to be what it is and doesn't insist on anything other than the natural-born truth of Flores' life story.
The Lives They Left is a piece of magic that doesn't show itself very often, particularly in modern R&B. Very few artists have found the balance of nuance, innovation, organic emotion, vocal dexterity and, for all its "moderniazation," a controlled and respectful nod to the traditional. You see it in artists like H.E.R., Solange, at times Summer Walker and Emmavie. Music that sits deeply in the R&B pocket but has enough self-awareness to be completely devoid of pretense or even a need to please a mainstream audience. It oftentimes does hold universal appeal for one reason or another, but that's never the goal. It's always to purge the soul of something significant. To put the soul into each note, each uttered word. Flores is an artist so deeply in touch with who she is. She refuses to sacrifice her truth for someone else's comfort. Beautifully conceived and delivered, honest and raw yet still able to connect with those who've been there before, those who understand the undertones.
Ending on a Frank Ocean-esque psalm ("Exito"), Flores paints the sky in reds and oranges before settling again in the twilight of the blues, an organ warped and warbled around police sirens and dispatch radios. The ending is as haunting as the beginning, drifting into a cacophony of sounds, then suddenly...silence. In her own way she's asking, "Where do we go from here?" When does it end, the heartache, the destruction? With the album's the clipped ending, it's almost as if she's daring us to find out for ourselves, to make a future that our children will look fondly back on. Like a woman in her 20s looking at a faded picture of family and friends in front of an old car.