How Far Is the Nearest Place to Kneel?
34 · 21 September 95
Jane Siberry: Maria
Jane Siberry originally earned my affections, eleven years ago, by making one of the greatest mini-epics of the New Wave era, the joyful "Mimi on the Beach", which was one of the only songs to ever coherently encapsulate its entire aesthetic into just its title (provided you get the Glass reference). Over the course of 1985's The Speckless Sky and 1987's The Walking she firmly established herself in my mind as Kate Bush's only serious competition both for being mortal earth's closest thing to an angel, and for being the consummate musical control freak. The albums are masterworks of obsessive detail, every minute aspect seemingly worked over with microscopic diligence until every peak and valley of every soundwave expressed exactly the correct nuance for Jane's mysterious purposes. A better trilogy to call into evidence on behalf of music technology I can't offhand suggest.
In 1989, though, this level of obsession finally seemed to get to Jane, and her next album, Bound by the Beauty, was a radical change of direction. Forsaking all the electronics, she recruited a band of live musicians and made a jubilant, open, unworried album of acoustic ensemble work. This took me quite a while to appreciate properly, and I'm not sure I've really internalized it even yet. It demonstrates clearly that many, perhaps most, of Jane's distinctive traits are not dependent on her use of technology, which is revealing and important, but I still miss the devices. However marvelous it is to hear a band of musicians establishing vital organic rapport, I already had a lot more music like that than I did records produced by possessed geniuses locking themselves away in the tower for years on end.
After a long silence, Jane finally returned in 1993, with the monumental and sublime When I Was a Boy. Firing up the synthesizers, samplers and computers once again, she made it an album of harrowing quiet, fierce spiritual depth, oblique ecstasy, and mesmerizing emotional intensity. Bound by the Beauty, and the six years in between this and The Walking, provide the distance necessary for her to transcend her earlier work by almost the same amount it in turn rose above her tentative 1980 folk debut.
So I wasn't really that surprised to hear the advance reports that Maria was essentially a jazz album, and a spontaneous one at that, and so probably a rebound back into the naturalist idiom of Bound by the Beauty. And I wasn't really worried, either. So it wouldn't be another of what I think of as Jane's real albums. Okay. I could listen to Jane sing Christmas songs, frankly, and I hate Christmas songs. (Jane, Holly Cole, Rebecca Jenkins, Mary Margaret O'Hara and Victoria Williams collaborated for a 1993 Christmas radio concert, released on CD in 1994 as Count Your Blessings.)
First of all, musically, it is a jazz album. Jazz, unfortunately, is pretty much all the same to me. I can recognize stylistic differences if I approach the subject in an academic frame of mind, but as soon as I stop concentrating, it all just turns back into a largely undifferentiated mass of meandering lounge music. This is a reflection on me, not the music, I'm fully aware. I'm quite sure there are dedicated jazz fans to whom the distinctions I draw between guitar-rock bands would be just as unfathomable. But there it is, and so there's not a whole lot I can say about the music on this album. Jane plays guitar and sings, fronting a six-piece combo with Tim Ray, also the pianist on Count Your Blessings, as the central figure. While Jane's personality comes through frequently in the compositions, if you took her heavenly voice off the tracks and her name off the cover, I'm certain I'd never pay this album the slightest bit of attention.
This would be a terrible loss, however, as the text of Maria is a personal revelation for me. Probably you don't much care about my personal revelations, but I'm going to explain this one anyway. I've spent most of my life so far as either an agnostic or an atheist (and the rest of it as an infant, a state which I guess has to be regarded as technically "undecided"). Only very recently has the religious impulse begun to make any sense to me. Reading Orson Scott Card books, actually, was the thing that finally led me to understand (or think I understand) the appeal of religion. For all the strange and disturbing facets of Mormonism, there's a fanatical community- and family-centric core to it whose logic is at least apparent (sort of a social Kosher for the New World frontier), and whose attraction I can recognize. No doubt large segments of the world will regard it as bewildering that the only organized religion I can fully fathom is Mormonism (my short apologetic: at least the Mormons have recent information), and even most of the Mormons will be suspicious at my having derived their ideology as much from Speaker for the Dead as from A Storyteller in Zion (never mind the actual book of Mormon, which I did steal a copy of from a hotel room in Vernon, Utah, but haven't read). And none of this empathy has affected my own personal disinterest in participating, which adherents will probably take as convincing evidence that I'm still missing a crucial point somewhere. Regardless, that was my own approximate current formal spiritual state, one that still instinctively draws a dark line between Faith and Reason, and regards Science and Religion as both intrinsically disparate, and pretty intransigently antagonistic.
At the same time, though, in the course of my other job (the one that supports a music-buying habit that evinces all the classic signs of addiction) (CD Buyers' Anonymous: the only 12-step program where the Japanese version has two bonus steps, and collectors can get an additional program consisting of one of the 12 steps rewritten seven extremely different ways...) I've found myself continually asking, in the context of electronic communications, what the problem is that all this technology is attempting to solve. This leads to interesting soul-searching (interesting to me, anyway), as I try to figure out what it is that I think is important, in the hopes that this will serve as a clue about what the rest of the world cares about.
Against this mental backdrop, then, comes Maria. Jane's explication of the central role of spirituality takes, fittingly enough, a sort of extra-logical form. As a whole, the album seems incredibly focused and persuasive to me, but when I try to disassemble its argument, line by line, I can't seem to find it anywhere. It is a holistic argument against reductionism, which makes reducing it both moot and largely impossible (and so doubly moot). A semblance of the point it makes, though, can perhaps be gleaned from (or imposed on) these two lines: "Everything you trust, / Everything you feel / Will come back / To kneel with you." ("Oh My My") and "How far is the nearest place to kneel?" ("Caravan") A life, Jane seems to me to say, must hold something sacred in order to have a basis. Even the dourest rationalist has to reason from something. And so kneeling, her prayer metonymy, is a ritual of reconnection with whatever it is that your life is organized around, with whatever value, however secular in the usual sense, forms your spiritual core. And just as a Moslem traveler must keep constant track of the direction of Mecca, that they may face it five times a day, so should we all keep track of where our spiritual center lies, and stop frequently to re-link ourselves to it. This leads me to realize, for the first time explicitly, that there are things in my life that are sacred after all: music, at least, and friends; wonder and curiosity; communication and shared experience; the unshakable, if chemically puzzling, belief that cheese is good, but intoxicants are bad; and though I haven't been able to isolate them yet, some vital things underlying my devotion to soccer, and to black denim. If "god" is merely a shorthand for the amalgamation (or the essence, or the emblem) of what you treat as value premises in your moral calculus, then perhaps I have a god after all, and even more importantly, perhaps saying this is of more than semantic significance. Rock and roll, letters and a really sharp Cheddar may not sound like much compared to plagues of locusts, thunderbolt-dealing hammers and cows with eyes all over them, but that doesn't mean that out of them I can't make a life. (Why does this example make me feel like the MacGyver of religion?)
On the other hand, it's possible that this album just happens to play into a particularly self-involved train of my own thoughts of late, and none of this is as profound as for a moment it seems to me. And, honestly, no matter how much I cherish this album for the breakthrough, now that the epiphany is over I'm going to listen to The Speckless Sky, instead.
The Cardigans: Life
Speaking of musical forms I don't usually seek out, another intriguing Q review persuaded me to try out this album by Swedish sugar-pop purists The Cardigans. If you can imagine what Devo would have sounded like if they'd been ABBA, or what Pizzicato Five would sound like as Beautiful-South-loving Swedes living in Amsterdam (Basil's Jappo-Scandinavian hybrid, finally, complete with an English bit we call Dutch), that's the bizarre frosted Bakelite demesne of the Cardigans. This is retro-glitter Europop at its most consciously and conspicuously cheesiest. Xylophone keyboard sounds permeate the arrangements, and Nina Persson's perky fake-fur vocals bound irrepressibly over the proceedings like she's auditioning for some adolescent television show that she'll be thoroughly embarrassed about later in life. Sputtering drums thwap out rhythms rife with Pink Panther-theme hi-hat swing, and the reedy guitar timbres strike me as what Beatles samples would sound like run through one of those big round children's toys that produce the noises of various farm animals when you set the dial right and pull the string. And if the music frequently sounds like the theme songs to bad 70's James Bond knock-offs, the lyrics do nothing to dispel the notion.
For me, this music executes an intricate quadruple negative to become compelling. On the one hand, it's patently appalling on the surface. Just about every element of every song is gratingly laughable. On the other hand, though, the level of careful attention to detail that this demonstrates is remarkable, and so carries this album on the time-honored journey from bad to so-bad-it's-good for me. However, back on the first hand, the Cardigans are actually too faithful to their image. By concluding the album with a cover of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", which people who were really like this would never have heard of, they reveal that their style is a product of careful, world-wise calculation, not refreshing naivete. This momentarily ruins the whole effect for me again. It's all manufactured, damn it!
But then their sheer persistence wins me over to the second hand one last time, and I decide that their calculation has justified itself by its execution. However crass a tactic doing a goofy cabaret jazz-pop cover of Black Sabbath is, their performance is everything you could ask for from such a thing. Their whole presence, in fact, is seamless and spotless. They even encourage capitulation by including a few songs where their Eurovision purism manages to veer relatively close to the pop mainstream, like the crisp, bouncy "Carnival"; the throaty road-anthem "Daddy's Car"; the snappy, horn-enriched, Style-Council-ish "Tomorrow"; and the mournful piano-bar ballad "After All...". And so, in the end, even if they are a band as wholly invented by marketers as they seem, I concede that for once the marketers have nailed me squarely in their target demographic. Slavishly, I buy. And buy, and buy...
I'll end with an album that is a sort of music I know I like, and one that I don't have to go through any complicated rationalizations to enjoy. I first discussed Scarlet back in May, when all I'd heard from them was a single, but even then I was leaning toward rash predictions about the album making my year-end top-ten list. A copy of the album made its way to me from the UK shortly thereafter, via kind courier (thanks, Georgia!), but I've been holding off reviewing it in the hopes that it would get released here in the US. A shred of plausibility was leant this scenario by the fact that the trailers for the movie Double Happiness used the Scarlet song "I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)", so I thought that maybe the movie appearance was going to be used as promotion for the album release here.
Hah. Not only does the song end up not appearing in the film itself at all, but the movie came and went here without enough fanfare to promote itself, much less boost any ancillary artwork. I'm sorry the movie didn't appear to do better, as I quite liked it, but I'm relieved that the song didn't end up being a running motif, because as applicable as the title "I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)" sounds to the film's tension between a daughter's devotion to her traditionalist Hong Kong-bred parents and the Westernized romance she's trying to simultaneously conduct, the lyrics of the song are actually about as incongruent as you could imagine. There's some gender ambiguity I can't decisively resolve, but I'm pretty sure that the song is one lover asking the other lover for liberty to engage in a sanctioned extra-relationshipal affair. I don't know of any other song that addresses this subject with as much earnestness. This is not a break-up song, and the singer makes it clear that the affair so far exists only in her mind, and that the thing she most wants is not the affair itself, but being able to tell her partner everything, without feeling guilty about that everything including desiring others. Pretty interesting. Nothing to do with Double Happiness whatsoever, though, and never mind what a British pop duo would be doing in a movie about Asians in Vancouver.
The album prickles with lyrical barbs like that, actually. "Independent Love Song" sounds on casual listen like a generic "our love is special" song, but on inspection I begin to wonder whether it isn't an involved bisexual pledge. In fact, when I combine it with "I Wanna Be Free", I begin to wonder whether the addressee of the latter song isn't female. (Billy Bragg's "Sexuality" notwithstanding, pan-sexuality is still pretty rare in mainstream pop music, so either this is interesting, or else I'm just misreading things.) "Naked" sounds sexual, but is really about emotional openness. "Man in a Cage" is a tabloid-scandal narrative that turns on the mordant inquiry "Was she worth it? / Was she like your wife? / Did she scream with delight?" "I Really Like the Idea" is a falling-in-love song whose self-aware chorus admits "I really like the idea of being in this for love". And "Moonstruck", despite its composed facade, is really essentially the same relationship narrative as Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know".
It's the musical setting for these songs that makes the album, though. I'm prepared to discover, eventually, that I've been overreacting, but at the moment this seems to me like a perfect pop archetype, worthy of enshrinement in my pantheon of ideal pop albums along with the Connells' One Simple Word and Del Amitri's Waking Hours. It seems to combine the grace of Everything But the Girl's Idlewild, the giddy excitement of Roxette's Crash! Boom! Bang!, the drive of T'Pau's The Promise, and the beauty of Grace Pool's Where We Live (and, just so there's no mistake, those are four of my favorite pop records), with gorgeous piano, roaring guitars, surging strings, shiny brass, soaring backing vocals and precise, kinetic drumming. "Independent Love Song" starts out quiet, with soft strings supporting a meditative piano. The strings then swell portentously, and the drums and bass crash in for the chorus. The refrain spins around a delicious "oo-oo aah" vocal spin, and the string drama makes "November Rain" sound like a bloated, overblown mess. "I Wanna Be Free (To Be With Him)" plays simmering keyboards against a warmly distorted guitar line. "Virgin" subsists on voice and an oscillating bass part for a while before caving in to the urge for more cathartic radiance.
"Love Hangover" operates on a squarer drum firmament, with little bits of singing that remind me of the Cocteau Twins (and personally, I prefer those vocal flourishes as occasional spice, not an album's only style). A machine-like drum groove propels the moody and textural "Naked". "Sirens of Silence" is a classic piano ballad, augmented with an exquisite brass section (regal cornets, euphonium and tuba, as well as some ordinary horns). "Man in a Cage" is charged and vindictive, with slashing guitar. "Shine" is slower and more ethereal, with echoing background choruses and chiming acoustic guitars. "I Really Like the Idea" is another trademark Scarlet combination of airy verses and sparkling choruses. And "Moonstruck" is a Beautiful-South-like cocktail of venom and cherry syrup. I've now listened to this album lots of times, to be sure, but I could sing large swaths of any of these ten songs from memory, without having taken any conscious action to prepare for the trick. And if that's not an adequate testimony to the album's quality, I'm going to need you to wait while I locate a notary.