Aly Spaltro, known professionally as Lady Lamb, is the rare indie rock artist whose words live as vividly on paper as they do in song. It’s not simply that she gives so much in her lyrics—of herself, of her imagination—but that she writes with such strange, radiant detail.
The Brooklyn singer-songwriter’s new album, “After,” out March 3, begins in a familiar poetic location, the heart. To Spaltro, who performs at the Sinclair in Cambridge on March 7, the organ is useful as much for its metaphorical meaning as for its blood: “The vena cava/ The most superior/ The queen/ Bringing blood into the chamber/ Always into the chamber/ And in you it moves the same,” she sings on the opening track, “Vena Cava.”
There is a lot of blood on “After.” One of her main concerns, says Spaltro, was mortality, a distinct shift from 2013’s relationship-focused “Ripely Pine.” On “After” there is much attention paid to the body and its frailties: ribs are separated, bodies exhumed, bones licked clean by wolves. Spaltro mixes metaphor with hyper-observant narrative, her stories shifting fluidly between the mundane and the imagined like the brain on the edge of sleep. That also happens to be the time when she does most of her writing. “At this point I usually get inspired to write either right before I fall asleep, or while I’m driving or in a car,” says Spaltro. “So I usually just write down a lot of phrases, and I like to kind of compile them later and kind of make a collage of phrases that work together in one piece.”
It’s not surprising, then, that many of her songs wind along with the supple agility of a dream. They play a coy game with structure, too, resisting a singular rhythm or key or texture even as they revel in bright, melodic hooks. A song might begin with a jangly banjo riff and end with a surging chorus of horns. Others are more subtle in their metamorphoses. But even in her most emphatically pop-minded moments, Spaltro never makes the obvious or easy choice. She is as much an acolyte of the dramatic decrescendo as the careful ebb and flow of conventional song craft.
That meandering, tempo-toying tendency is a holdover form Spaltro’s beginnings as a solo artist. She wrote her first songs in the basement of the video rental store where she worked, as a teenager, in her hometown of Brunswick, Maine. She would compose alone into the wee hours after the shop had closed, taping her ideas and overdubbing the arrangements. The results were raw and restless and intensely intimate. Back then, Spaltro performed without a backing band, and the unusual song structures and shifts in tempo were a way to keep herself, and her audience, interested. On “After” they are as much a tool as a crutch to be tossed away when the moment calls for it.
“I think there was a subconscious interest I had in just being more concise. … It was really just because it’s hard for me to do that,” Spaltro explains. “And I think it’s difficult, it’s just a difficult thing to do, to write a concise pop song, and be really direct and have hooks and that kind of thing. It’s actually, in my opinion, it’s easier in a lot of ways to write a song that is seven minutes long and kind of meanders and moves around.”
On “After,” those moments of focus pierce Spaltro’s voluble poetry like a blade of grass through damp soil. “Heretic,” for instance, begins as a musing on the backlash against ahead-of-their-time astronomers Galileo and Copernicus, but transitions deftly in the final verse to a more personal realm. Spaltro uses scientific lingo and the heretic’s me-against-the-world mentality to conjure the commiserative feeling between lovers: “’Cause you and I are concentric/ Let’s learn about black holes,/ Unplug the television set/ Let’s ponder the true builders of the pyramids/ And order in.”
There is a pure, joyful warmth about “After” despite its heavy cosmic concerns. Spaltro employs peppy percussion and burnished guitar with the broad, expressive brushstrokes of an Impressionist painter.
“I was constantly trying to get my vocal to be darker on [‘Ripely Pine’] so it wouldn’t kind of pierce people’s ears,” remembers Spaltro. “But then I started listening a lot more to Neko Case, and realized that her records are so bright-sounding, they’re mixed and mastered really bright. But there’s something that, at least for me and probably many people, sometimes a bright record … kind of gets into your heart maybe a little more. There’s something really direct about that sound. So I wanted to make a conscious effort with ‘After’ to not be afraid to have a brighter sound.”
“After” is also Spaltro’s first album as Lady Lamb, a shortened version of her original handle, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper. The alias was lifted from a late-night notebook scribble, the phrase emerging slyly from Spaltro’s subconscious and later catching her fancy. “I find the full moniker to just be kind of clunky and long,” she explains, adding that the longer version had a whimsical quality that she felt was at odds with her music.
There are undoubtedly moments of whimsy on “After”—shared smiles with strangers, yellow balls of yarn, piles of warm laundry—but it would be folly to mistake Spaltro’s whimsy for softness. There is strength to her playfulness and curiosity in her seriousness. Her neatest trick is to balance all that intricate lyrical detail with sincere, infectious wonder.
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