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Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros Eulogize Their Eponymous Leader on 'PersonA'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

It seems PersonA is the end of the ephemeral Edward Sharpe as we’ve known him; just the cover alone implies that the all-father of New Millennium folk-pop, Alex Ebert, has chosen to end his warbling messianic stage sobriquet in martyrdom. During a conversation with Transverso preceding the album’s release, Ebert explained, "There was no character to begin with, so why not kill him? He never really was there. If anything, and at most, Edward Sharpe was a vehicle for me to get to slough off whatever I had become up until that point, and to get back to or sort of allow my pure self to come forth into sort of a clean slate." This reinvention is paralleled with a disillusionment with the impact particular whistle stomp clap laden tracks from his catalogue have made on the current music landscape; "As an artist that cares about moving things forward, it makes me not want to do that music anymore," he told us.

PersonA, ostensibly a sort of portmanteau of "persona" and "Person A," aligns almost narratively with Ebert’s desire to jettison himself from the moniker altogether, as the album acts as a revelatory eulogy for Edward Sharpe, with his vocals - and thus persona - clearer and more focused than usual along the way without the back-and-forth dynamism brought by former bandmate Jade Castrinos for the first time.

Within all of his musical endeavors, Ebert has remained inherently spiritual, with melodies ranging from gospel chorus odes to fear-of-god folk confessionals. PersonA leadoff “Hot Coals” intertwines both musical provinces, dancing from brooding folk ballad to bouncing gospel pop doo-wop as Ebert’s harsh “Get the fuck out my sight” ushers in distressed feelings of incendiary love turning into nothing more than memorable embers. One could argue that the “hot coals" could act as metaphorical introduction to Edward Sharpe’s musical exeunt, but whether or not that is the case remains unseen.

“Uncomfortable” elicits feelings of forced unease in order for Ebert to progress – “Uncomfortable / You got be uncomfortable” repeating throughout the track before shrieks and a piano crash bring it to a jarring close. Only the second song on PersonA, it’s seemingly the gospel confessional Ebert needs to atone for the constant that Edward Sharpe has inevitably become. “Somewhere” returns to Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros’ natural proclivities, as the “Here Comes the Sun”-esque folk picking tenderly prods lyrics of “She’s got a belly full of baby” and “Now we’ve come together and we’re wandering home.” For the usual cacophonous nature of The Magnetic Zeros, “Somewhere” is a softhearted, sort-of throwback to early Edward Sharpe love letters, but eschews the delightfully campy Jade days past with seemingly more honest anecdotes of current real-life relationship and child.

It seems fitting that “No Love Like Yours” would be the heavy hitting cleanup track on PersonA, primarily because of the song’s well intentioned demands of “Show me love” throughout. Combined with its video, the track extends the proclamation to all who may have listened to Edward Sharpe as a sort of humble request to be happy with what Edward Sharpe became, and know that his purpose as been fully realized and fulfilled - as he willingly enters his own coffin. “Wake Up the Sun” almost feels like a Fela Kuti track mixed with big band jazz/rumba from Dave Brubeck, while the classic Ebert vocal warbling is in full force on the track, as it echoes familiar sentiments and features of Edward Sharpe songs passed. It's here he also further severs himself from the spirituality firmly wrought to his character: "I'm tired of Buddha / So bored of Abraham / I'm tired of Krishna / Feels good to say I am" he admits, soberingly stripping away yet another fabled layer.

“Free Stuff” is one of the sweetest sounding diss/beef/callout tracks in recent memory, as Ebert spends the majority of the song mocking the folk pop styling that his songs “Home” and “40 Day Dream” brought to the mainstream way back when, with Of Monsters and Men and The Lumineers even being mentioned by name during the track's live debut. Ebert has spoken out against the continual imitation that was flattering initially, but eventually wore upon his creative process, telling Transverso, "To my mind, it’s more palatable than eras of sort of alternative pop that I’ve lived through. But if something’s already happening and I’m just gonna reiterate that all I’m doing is participating in a commercial venture." For those introduced to the bearded figure via Volkswagen advertisements, be glad you got on board when you did.

PersonA then begins to build a head of steam with a capricious repurposing of hope into reverence for the Edward Sharpe of old, as “Let It Down” speaks of allowing “it” to turn into a memory, running as far and as fast as possible to escape the ensuing perpetuity of the act, before evolving into a rapturous tribal breakdown. “Perfect Time” is a loving recounting of past exploration for purpose in a world that is unequivocally fucked up, with Ebert literally asking for guidance from a higher power, questioning the need and timing for a love injection into the world paired with hopeful brass melodies. Despite - or in spite of - rampant misfortune in the world, the hippie archetype rears its head again; it's always time for love. As he sat on the edge of stage during this song's first performance he mentioned resisting the artistic urge to be vague and "poetic," saying the subject at matter at hand deserved to be conveyed bluntly for a change. And that's exactly what you get.

As PersonA comes closer and closer to its end, songs like “Lullaby” feel increasingly comforted by the fact that the album is issuing Edward Sharpe’s death, juxtaposing it with the new beginnings of his three year old daughter. Thoughts of incredible struggle, immovable stubbornness, and painful education map the narrative for Ebert’s loving letter to his child, before “The Ballad of Yaya” presents the exuberant “end” of his PersonA with glowing affirmation: “The movie’s over / Lay that dirt on me.” The cinematic reference is an appropriate metaphor, alluding to Ebert’s extensive film scoring work in the bands off-seasons. Where other tracks on the LP only marginally felt like issuance of Edward Sharpe’s curtain call, “The Ballad of Yaya” is the culmination of his collective body of work, as it ends with a frenetic chorus and cheerful barrage of horns while Ebert sings of resurrection and not fearing death, only looking to the future. 

Read our interview with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros here.