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WILLOW Launches Jazz-Fusion Into The Mainstream With New Album 'Empathogen'

Updated: May 27

Empathogen, the new highly-discussed album by WILLOW is many things: a release that has single-handedly put jazz-fusion in the mainstream, another well-funded & well-resourced arts project from a nepo-baby, an album that has put women at the forefront of a male-dominated jazz scene, a person of colour excelling in their field to be met with an onslaught of criticism, an experiment in short-form music… the list goes on.


Art at its core is two things: a communication tool and a craft. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum; its social context is an integral part of its substance because for communication to occur there must be a message. It must also be analysed for how well the skills of the craft are executed. Both of these lenses are subjective and interconnected, which is the most exciting thing about art and the reason so many different tastes and opinions exist.


I wanted to preface my review with this definition of art, because these two facets of its nature seem to be the source of conflict in opinion on whether this album is “good” or not. There are so many different social analyses of Empathogen bouncing around, it’s almost become difficult to listen to it without a pre-conceived idea of how much you’re allowed to like or dislike it.


I’m going to start this review by talking about the craft with a few criteria - the musicianship, the arrangements, and how well the content of the songs is communicated using these tools (and here we will have an overlap in the two facets of art).

WILLOW has become an incredibly skilled musician - her vocal control and tonal experimentation are finessed and exciting, her jazz chops are well-developed as is her understanding of the other genres in her fusion. The ideas in Empathogen showcase an expansive musical toolkit, and her arrangements are intricate both rhythmically and harmonically. Whether you like the songs or not, she’s put the time in to properly understand what she’s playing and it shows.


The first track ‘home’ is a strong start to this body of work. Structurally a "variations on a theme" type of song, it uses some very fun metric modulation, and concisely introduces the jazz-fusion soundscape that is to ensue.


I particularly like her rhythmic use of vocals in songs like ‘the fear is not real’, ‘run!’ and ‘“i know that face.”’. The often-syncopated interplay with the rhythm section and vocals displays a masterful funk sensibility.


It’s really cool to hear influence from the Japanese jazz/prog scene in songs like ‘symptom of life’ and ‘b i g f e e l i n g s’ too, both of which hang out in a 7-feel (for the musos out there) for large portions of the song (a personal favourite odd time signature of mine). Both songs have really intuitive turns back to a more straight 4/4 - in ‘symptom of life’, dropping into 4/4 for the catchy chorus that drives the message home, and in ‘b i g f e e l i n g s’ the 4/4 comes along with a chord and texture change into a clean and floaty bridge section.


The 4th interval harmonies in the ‘b i g f e e l i n g s’ piano lines are harmonically crunchy, and I love a 3 over 4 polyrhythm - classic, always groovy, it’s a fantastic arrangement. However, from a songwriting/storytelling perspective, it doesn’t really expand from being a sonic representative of a singular emotional state. Structurally, it’s another "variations on a theme" song, but arguably a good exploration of different facets of this one emotional state. Flagging this now, but more on the “singular-idea-per-song" thread a little later.


‘Symptom of life’ is my favourite kind of proggy-fusion; it strikes the balance between being accessible and satisfying to my inner music-nerd perfectly. I love the bass line in the chorus, but the song is just a bit shorter than I wanted it to be. I feel like there was room to grow.


On this - many of the songs are surprisingly short, and I’m in two minds about whether I like this choice or not. On first listen it was somewhat jarring and felt like WILLOW either didn’t have much to say, or didn’t know where to go from the initial idea. A Joni Mitchell quote came to mind: “You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it's just complaining.”

However, after a few more listens in context of the album, I think most of these shorter songs successfully capture an emotional snapshot, and the story and progression exists over multiple songs rather than within one. The best albums are a body of work with an overarching story, and I would pose that this was the intention here. I’m still undecided on how well that story actually flows.


Many of the songs explore the nature of being human, the discomfort of feeling, and existing alongside the contradictions within ourselves. While WILLOW has effectively utilised cool music tools to represent these ideas, I would argue she’s got surface-level understanding of some of the psychological and Eastern-philosophy concepts she’s referencing, and this translates in the short structures of the songs and the “singular-idea-per-song” pattern across the album. This doesn’t necessarily make the songs invalid or underdeveloped though - music is self-expression, and perhaps this is expressing exactly the stage that she is at.


From a social-analysis perspective, there are many angles you could take, but it’s pretty hard to ignore the nepo-baby discourse zeitgeist right now. I’ll address that first.

WILLOW at the age of 23 has released six solo studio albums, one collaborative studio album, four extended plays, 19 singles (including four as a featured artist), two promotional singles and ten music videos. She was 10 years old when her first single was released with major label support. She’s had access to mentorship and jamming with some of the world’s best musicians, all the funds needed to successfully release and promote her music, and celebrity status from the get-go. She has grown up with the freedom to pursue her art, to explore without the barriers and limitations that most artists face. The result? Some great music.


I’ve found the discourse around nepotism in the arts to often miss the mark at both ends - I’m tired of hearing that this album isn’t actually good because WILLOW is privileged, and I’m tired of hearing that she would have been successful either way because she’s good.


Having these privileges does not incapacitate someone's ability to make valid art, to work hard, or to be a person with depth and something to say - at the same time, people benefitting from nepotism privilege seem to defend their success by responding to the critics that argue this is the case. From WILLOW, we’ve heard, “I definitely think that a little bit of insecurity has driven me harder because people do think that the only reason I’m successful is because of my parents”, and "I truly believe that my spirit is a strong spirit and that, even if my parents weren’t who they were, I would still be a weirdo and a crazy thinker”.


This entire discourse is pointless.


What I hope we can take from observing WILLOW is that people; when raised and supported to express themselves and believe they can do hard things while enjoying the process, when given access to funds, arts education, and mentorship; will make great art. I hope we can observe that this is what has happened here, and work towards creating a future where anyone can have the freedom and access to create and share in the way that WILLOW has. We are missing out on hearing the stories and creations of so many good artists because they do not have access to the resources needed. We shouldn’t be invalidating WILLOW’s art, but we should be looking at what needs to change for more good art to exist.


Something else we can take from this is that women will excel in male-dominated spaces when given the opportunity to do so. Not that we actually needed any more proof of this, but it’s another case-and-point moment for the music scene and broader society. The artistry and skill here is undeniable, and this is not an anomaly.


Not enough women in the jazz-fusion space are platformed, and the barriers women face to developing their chops and skills are still monumental. WILLOW is someone who has had somewhat of a leg-up over these obstacles because of her nepo-baby status (though she absolutely has still faced gender and race-based bias - onions have layers). This album shows that giving extra support to offset existing social biases does work.


My last thoughts on Empathogen are on the short-form nature of the songs; I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the rise of short-from video content across TikTok and reels. It’s impacted the mindset and thought patterns of the younger generations, and these songs feel like a larger body of work being chopped into bite-size pieces for easier consumption. Does this set a precedent for future music structures? I’m curious to see where we go from here.


In summary, I think this is one of the most exciting and well-crafted releases I’ve heard in the mainstream in a long time. The production is beautiful, there’s an abundance of engaging musical ideas, and some really well-captured universal feelings and messages that will connect with many. I’m a fan of this album, and its success presents a lot of food for thought.



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