Margaret Glaspy had only a couple of EPs to her name when she told an interviewer that she wanted to approach songwriting “like a job.” Whatever the Brooklyn-based, Northern California-born artist’s creative process, it paid off on her debut album, 2016’s Emotions and Math, a spare and spiky set of broadly rooted songs that showed off her electric guitar, spellbinding voice, and conversational lyrics. On her synth-oriented follow-up, 2020’s Devotion, the songs felt labored, but for her third album, Echo the Diamond, Glaspy has trusted her strengths. It’s a commendable reset—and a reminder that making good art needn’t feel like a struggle.

Produced by Glaspy and her husband, the jazz-leaning guitarist and composer Julian Lage, Echo the Diamond features only one fleeting appearance by the synths so prevalent on its predecessor. Instead, the new album homes in on the vibrant instrumental interplay between Glaspy and an accomplished rhythm section of drummer Dave King, best known for his work with the Bad Plus, and bassist Chris Morrissey, who’s played with an eclectic array of artists such as Lucius and Andrew Bird. Glaspy wrote the songs fast, and the musicians made the record in the studio together in three days; some of the finished tracks were first takes, and some were rehearsals. “Climbing uphill doesn’t always equate to things being good,” Glaspy told Paste. “Actually, you can just pick up the things that are right next to you, you can reach inside your own heart and pull out something that’s worthy. You’re allowed to do that.”

The first chunk of Echo the Diamond establishes Glaspy’s return to prickly alt-pop. Opening track “Act Natural,” a playful account of feeling inadequate when meeting someone extraordinary (Glaspy sings, “Is this some kind of butterfly rebirth?/Are you even from this earth?”), brandishes a twisty, wonderfully catchy guitar riff reminiscent of Modest Mouse or MJ Lenderman. “Get Back,” which reclaims the Beatles’ famous dictum as an interior monologue of personal discovery, has a terrific moment where Glaspy holds the last note of the title phrase like Wile E. Coyote bounding over a cliff; she doesn’t look down. She can also be funny: “Don’t be a dick,” Glaspy sneers at the outset of “Female Brain,” which morphs from a litany of petty slights experienced by women to an energizing battle cry with such herky-jerky looseness that it feels like it’s being made up on the spot. What could’ve been heavy-handed instead seems like it could break apart at any moment.

The album’s brash opening turns out to be a Trojan horse for Glaspy’s warm, perceptive songwriting. Perhaps the best song is “Memories,” a waltzing ballad about a source of grief that the artist hasn’t specified in interviews; the ache is so palpable in her voice, creaking like Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, she doesn’t have to. On “Irish Goodbye,” a midtempo smolderer built around a knotty riff, Glaspy weaves a compelling third-person narrative about a man who doubts himself after forming a connection with a woman who sneaks out of the bar. The song’s quintessential New York City setting has a neat bookend in the languid finale “People Who Talk,” which winds up somewhere with a lively backyard and an intriguing sense of ambivalence; the protagonist may have settled down, but this isn’t happily ever after.

Echo the Diamond can be remarkably inventive within the confines of its narrow lineup and spontaneous origins. The biggest outlier is “Hammer and the Nail,” the only co-write on the album (with contributions from Glaspy’s friend Ryan Lerman), which dips into a jazz standard’s seductive smokiness, albeit with Glaspy’s flickering guitar and sphinx-like ambiguity. There are still times when Glaspy’s lyrics feel effortful. A couplet like, “Oh every conversation between strangers or acquaintances/Only reminds me of how radiant your patience is,” from the successful Alanis Morissette homage “My Eyes,” may strike some listeners as cleverly inspired, and others as simply too clever. But the album resonates as the expression of an overachiever remembering the benefits of working within self-imposed constraints. In that sense, the most representative song might be “Turn the Engine,” a leisurely showcase for some of Glaspy’s most otherworldly, Joni Mitchell-via-Lucinda Williams vocal runs, which doubles as one of the most candid songs I have heard about crippling self-criticism. For anyone who enjoys a thoughtful singer-songwriter record with adept, minimalist instrumental backing and a powerhouse vocalist, Echo the Diamond is a worthy listen. For people who recognize themselves when Glaspy sings about being “back up in my head/Like a needle just passing thread,” it could become an essential companion.

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Margaret Glaspy: Echo the Diamond