Lhasa de Sela's recent bio details are too juicy not to relate. In 1998, the Mexican-Canadian singer released a Spanish language album, La Llorona, which displayed her musical vision fully formed: A mixture of traditional and modern styles and instrumentation, grounded in Mexican folk and ranchera but taking on elements of jazz, French chanson, and gypsy music, with Lhasa's at-times smoky, chanteuselike performances inspired the tag "Mexican Edith Piaf." The album was critically acclaimed and surprisingly successful, so Lhasa naturally followed it by . . . running away to France to join the circus for several years. It's such a delightful story, it could almost be a very long-term PR masterstroke designed to help sales of her second album, The Living Road (Nettwerk), finally released last August.
It's hardly a shock to find that a five-year wait would bring with it a bold expansion of La Llorona's blueprint, most apparently in the addition of songs sung in French and English. But the real transformation is at once more subtle and more fundamental. A decisive shift is revealed on the ominous opening track, "Con Toda Palabra," which announces itself as a dizzying swirl of sounds and atmospheres: the restrained patter of live and electronic percussion, prickling pizzicato strings, the distressed sighs of sustained guitar drones, and the unabashed moan of gypsy violin. Lhasa's voice, appearing deeper, richer, and darkened by some trauma, evokes a level of expressive intensity that relegates most previous performances to the domain of the merely pretty. Frequently threatening to become a keening wail, it wraps itself around the words with a desperate determination that causes the consonants to tremble with stress. No surprise when the lyrics (mostly concerning affairs of the heart) frequently aspire to psalmlike levels of apocalyptic austerity. "To love you is a prayer," a translated verse of "Con Toda Palabra" solemnly states, "the song of the mute; the eyes of the blind; the naked secret."
The greatly enhanced production, meanwhile, may be partly thanks to the album's producers, Francois Lalonde and Jean Massicotte. Their subtle use of electronics and their proficiency with a variety of instruments lends a multilayered, wide-screen sensibility to the album's most ambitious efforts. The best of these is "Anywhere on This Road," whose ominous rhythmic arrangement plumbs astonishing new depths of rollicking intricacy. Tingling, multitiered percussion weaves in and out of deep, resonant pools of bass, portentous bell tolls, and a sustained trumpet solo of unbelievable intensity, while Lhasa's voice stalks across the groove with aching precision, singing of her love for "A man who's afraid of me/He believes if he doesn't stand guard with a knife/I will make him my slave for the rest of his life." Recalling the textured rhythms of German house artist Ricardo Villalobos as much as Lila Downs, it's both deeply unsettling and irrepressibly physical.
The arrangements are not always so ostentatiously accomplished, but they share the same subtlety and attention to detail. "The Small Song" shuffles and slips over an ungainly Tom Waits–style ramshackle groove, and shares much of Waits' threadbare grandeur, while the claustrophobic closer, "Soon This Space Will Be Too Small," pivots around a descending piano figure and drifting electronic sparkles reminiscent of German house producer Closer Musik's mournful "Departures." Uniting these disparate moments is a cinematic sense of depth: The music moves between states of stark simplicity and lush complexity, and in both states individual sounds feel suspended in infinite space, coordinating impossible distances to speak to each other. It lends Lhasa's already epic-seeming narratives a panoramic sweep, scenes of loss alternating between intrusive close-ups and wide camera angles.
The Living Road retains a brace of more traditional moments that cleave more closely to Lhasa's core set of musical styles, but even here the arrangements are a delight, be it the rippling chimes on the halting waltz "J'Arrive à la Ville" or the sun-flecked guitar and sepia-toned mariachi horns on "La Frontera." Less far-reaching than the album's darker, more complex moments, such tracks nonetheless never veer too far toward genre formalism; I was looking for a well-meaning but generic misstep to castigate and couldn't find a single track that wasn't affecting and singularly the work of this artist.
Such a mixture of palpable heritage and striking individuality makes The Living Road as ripe for crossover success as a predominantly non–English language album can be in the U.S., and in more cynical moments I'll admit that there's an agreeable elegance to it that cuts across lines of taste as smoothly as Norah Jones or The Da Vinci Code. If you're suspicious of such middlebrow success stories, then you'd be advised to either jump on now or avoid Lhasa altogether. But if anything stunts its success, it will be the rich vein of darkness and regret that Lhasa can't seem to drag herself away from. You'd have to be numb, deaf, or both to ever relegate The Living Road to the status of background music.
Lhasa plays the Triple Door at 8 p.m. Fri., Jan. 21. $17.