Sometimes when I’m listening to music the sounds form a music video in my mind. It isn’t always consistent and doesn’t happen every time, but its always a fun experience. A sad, meditative track might be a man walking slowly through a rainy urban landscape. An upbeat trumpet solo might paint a lively jazz band in the park luring in a crowd of passersby on a sunny day.
The scenes rise and fall in my mind. Sometimes a blurry image representing a simple concept that quickly fades away. Sometimes a vivid story that surprises me as the song twists and turns. This happens naturally, but if I put in a little effort and focus on these images I can create richer stories with greater detail. I decided to do just that with the album Diagnostic by Ibrahim Maalouf for my first review.
Maeva in Wonderland
Diagnostic — by Ibrahim Maalouf
I discovered Ibrahim Maalouf and the album Diagnostic through the amazing song that is Maeva in Wonderland. (My fellow lankers can attest to how frequently I spun this track on JQBX when I first met my lanky family.) The track feels like 3 or 4 songs combined to create one eclectic sonic experience.
Four tracks into the album, Maeva in Wonderland is the most energetic song on Diagnostic. Preceded by more contemplative tracks, the song starts with a steady, playful piano riff that hints at the fun to come. Overlapping, quick-paced percussion signals the energy ahead—confirmed a second later by blaring horns. Maalouf enters with a beautiful trumpet solo supported and at times echoed by the surrounding orchestra.
Three minutes into the track, tension mounts as the notes raise in crescendo to what feels like the penultimate peak of the song. Nope. Just as we think we’ve found our footing, Maalouf pulls the rug out from under our feet. The song transitions seamlessly into what feels like a Latin dance number, reinforced by syncopated horns and a delightful piano backing. As the song embraces its new energy the horns taper down to allow a fantastic piano solo to take the spotlight.
The horns come back in as the solo winds down—rising with energy once more before easing back into slow, easy going piano. We almost forget where we started until the piano finds the playful riff from the beginning of the song. Horns rise to mirror the opening (cut off momentarily by an electronic effect like an old television being powered down). An electric guitar closes the track, tying all the loose threads together before softly laying us back into the contemplative vibe of the rest of the album.
Interestingly, I wasn’t a big fan of the rest of the album on my first listen-thru. I was looking for that same energy and spirit, but Maeva is its most energetic track by far. It doesn’t matter if you like both water and Sprite—if you drink one expecting the other, its an unpleasant experience. So I decided to revisit the album to give it a fair shake with clean ears. I’m glad I did.
This album plays out like a movie, ebbing and flowing with distinct emotion in each track. After listening a couple times through and reckoning all the different images in my head, I decided this was Lily’s story of choosing love over expectation.
The Soundtrack to an Imaginary Film
Lily (is 2) —
Diagnostic opens with soft, contemplative piano. Like a flashback opening, Lily is reflecting on her early childhood memories. Delicate but safe under her parents wing. A moment frozen in time that is somehow both reflective and forward looking.
Will Soon Be a Woman —
As the piano picks up pace, a montage speeds through Lily’s childhood into her teenage years. She will soon be a woman. Carnival-like horns signal Lily’s growing fascination with the adventurous world outside her home. Strict and proper strings, Lily’s parents, admonish this interest. Loving but strict, they discourage “silly pursuits.”
Lily goes to her room and looks out her window. As the choir begins to sing, the camera moves to an external shot outside Lily’s house. The camera slowly pulls back further and further, up and away until it is soaring above Lily’s house showing us a sweeping view of the world outside her reach.
Carnival strings. Cut to a man walking along the street outside Lily’s house. Viktor’s preparing for the big fair in the square later that day. Something makes him stop, turning to lock eyes with Lily who is still staring outside her window.
Vik waves for Lily to come outside and join him. As the choir rises, Lily makes her choice. She runs down the stairs and out of her house towards a new adventure, looking behind her a she closes the gate.
We find Lily and Vik in the middle of conversation as they walk to the fair. The excitement and anticipation is building up inside Lily. She has never had her own personal adventure. She can just make out the carnival-like sounds in the distance, nearing with every step.
Maeva in Wonderland —
Lily has reached what she has been waiting for. The most exciting song of the album. Trumpets sign the shift away from the proper and classical towards the exciting and new. Jugglers, carnival barkers, fire tossers, bazaar tables set all around selling different and interesting foods and wares from around the world. A flurry of colors and sounds surround our protagonist as she immerses herself in this new world.
Vik grabs her hand and leads her to the music to begin dancing. The crowd melts into the background. The stage disappears. They are the only two people in the world. Suddenly we cut to a piano player spot lit in the corner of the room playing a delicious, delightful piano solo.
We slowly zoom out back into the crowd as we see everyone join in and start dancing right alongside our duo. However, the night is getting late. Lily fears her parents will notice her disappearance if she doesn’t leave now. Its hard, but she tears herself away from the wonderland and runs back home. Vik rushes after but loses her in the crowd.
Your Soul —
Back at home, Lily feels a loss. The fair was more wonderful and fantastic than she could have imagined. Suddenly her own world looks less colorful, less welcoming. She looks in the mirror, trying to recapture some of the magic. To feel how she felt that night. She escaped her routine and tasted adventure, if only for a moment. She recaptures the magic as best she can in her own small way, dancing alone in her room.
While her life back home is plain, she still loves her friends and family. Yet, there now exists an undercurrent of sadness. Lily knows where the garden path leads, and she wants to go elsewhere.
Everything or Nothing —
Beautiful, harrowing chants open this track. Intense and steady bass and drum riffs remind Lily of her expectations and duties. The real world has found her once again.
Lilly responds in a soft horn solo. She feels alone and lost in the world, unsure what to do. Duty and loyalty? Or free will and adventure? We soar further above Lilly’s home than before, rising into and past the gray rainy clouds to show her place in the world.
Fade out brings us back to Lilly, contemplating her choices. Sitting on the floor of her room. Dress splayed on the ground, head hanging. Searching, hoping for a means to escape. Reminded of her expected role in this world by the steady, rising drum beat.
Never Serious —
Cut back to Vik in the market, thoughts of Lily on his mind. His life is far less organized or structured. He may not have the nicest digs, but he lives his life on his terms. All around him is a constantly shifting crowd of characters, colors, scents moving in every direction. Vik’s friends tell him to forget about Lily, she comes from another world, but Vik can’t get her out of his head.
They Don’t Care About Us —
Vik needs to see Lily again. He marches down the street with determination in each step. He doesn’t care what others think, he isn’t sure if Lily feels the same way, but he has to do this. Talking with Lily outside her house in secret, its clear the feeling is mutual. Lily still feels uncertain, her family would never allow a relationship. Taking Lily’s hand, Vik says its time for them to forge their own path.
Rising chants (representing their respective friends and family) cry out that it can’t be so.
Lily is convinced. At first light, while everything is quiet and Lily’s family is asleep, they sneak out together to run away and start their new life together.
I don’t know French at all and Shroom may make fun of me for getting it completely wrong, but I imagine a narrator describing their travels. Over the music and narration, we see sweeping vistas documenting the journey. Vik and Lily are the size of ants against the landscape background. As they travel they experience hardships and grow closer because of it, sharing many nights together on the path to their new life. Both excited for the future yet nervous of what they left behind.
All the Beautiful Things —
This track was the hardest for me to visualize a story for because its such a lanky bastard. I had to listen a couple times to try to marry the conflicting vibes and images in my head.
Opening, a mouse is scurrying through the city market center. As he passes Vik’s friends, we see their confusion at his disappearance. The mouse continues past them down the city streets, until he finds Lily’s house. Slipping through a crack, he scurries across the floor. The camera stops following the mouse to pan up to Lily’s mother and father. Lily’s father furious, her mother weeping. There is a shared determination among the family and friends left behind to find Vik and Lily.
Cut back to Vik and Lily who are now being followed. They scramble from location to location. They can’t and won’t go back. Finally they are confronted by Lily’s father. His anger transformed to sorrow, punctuated by a sad and tranquil trumpet solo, he just wants Lily to know how much she is missed and loved. If she just comes back, the family will put the past behind them.
Lily asks if he will bless their relationship, but her father refuses. As the song closes we sense another rising sense of determination. Lily loves her family but will not be told how to live her life or who to love. She walks away with Viktor.
Lily stood up for herself, but feels like she has won a hollow victory. A victory that came with a necessary loss. Despite the undercurrent of happiness (piano) at being able to live her life with Vik, she can’t help but feel sadness (trumpet) for the family she has left behind.
Months have passed. It is a quiet, peaceful night filled with contemplation. Sitting beside Vik on a terrace, hands clasped, the two survey the night scene. Lily gets up and walks inside to go down the winding spiral staircase. Somber joy permeates the night.
She achieved her goal, reached her final destination and yet still there is a sense of loss. She reflects on the choices made that brought her to this moment. Despite the peace and serenity there is an appetite for more. An existential crisis of sorts. What should she reach for now?
Vik rounds the corner. The two staring at each other at opposite ends of an empty hall way. Lily’s lips curl up into a coy smile. They step towards each other with the same passion they felt the first night they met. Vik takes Lily by the hand and they dance as if they were in the market once more. Capturing and marrying their two separate worlds together as one. Their adventures have just begun.