Slid Off Sideways and Was Gone Forever
381 · 16 May 02
Jane Siberry: Love Is Everything
As best I can recall, I have only once ever given a present and had it literally handed right back to me. It was long ago, when I gave my then-girlfriend a flashlight for her birthday. It was a very good flashlight, one of those 4D Maglites that you can also use for clubbing bison to death or stopping a passenger train whose brakes have failed. You might intimate, of course, that a large metal flashlight is not an especially romantic birthday present for a young man to give a young woman, but it was not the only thing I gave her that birthday, and although I cannot remember what else accompanied it, I think we can safely assume that the other things were more romantic than a flashlight. I thought the flashlight was a good practical addition. We were old enough to need things like flashlights, and young enough not to have them. And the reason she simply handed it back to me was not, at least ostensibly, romantic inadequacy or functional shortcomings. She handed it back to me because if she didn't it would belong to her, and she had begun to feel possessed by her belongings.
I could definitely sympathize on logistical grounds. I was just out of college, she still in, which meant we were both very much in the stage of life where one is expected to move one's entire stock of material goods from place to place with annoying frequency, and usually without paid help. Having carried my own boxes of books and records up and down more dormitory stairs than I care to ever again traverse even unencumbered, I could vividly imagine the practical advantage of owning nothing. But as soon as I started contemplating individual objects, the logic fell apart. Books, for example, are clearly good, and buying them instead of borrowing them from the library is physically inefficient but morally commendable. Records are good. A guitar is good. A synthesizer is good. Some lamps, surely no one should feel guilty about having a few lamps. A couch? A couch is good. A bed?
And although I don't usually consider myself a materialist, in a philosophical sense, I have made no real effort to travel through this life lightly, and by the age of thirty-five I have accumulated a fair number of things. I have a lot of printed words and recorded sounds and images. I have computers and musical instruments and stereo equipment and board games and kitchen appliances. In anticipation of the World Cup I have purchased a second, larger television. I have furniture. I own (for some definition of "own") a house to keep these things in, and a car in which to bring additional objects back to it. I will almost certainly never again change domiciles without professional assistance. But I do not feel constrained by these things, most of the time. Usually exactly the opposite: I love the reading chair my sister and parents chipped in to buy for me a couple Christmases ago. I love my chest-of-drawers. I love my coffee mugs and my cookware and my folding camp chairs. I love picture frames and extension cords and photo printers and boomerangs and winter coats. I am proud of the environment I've assembled around myself. I love objects into and out of which flow human ambitions and capacities. Materialism is usually counterposed, at least implicitly, with humanism, but there's no reason the two shouldn't be thought of as complementary, if not virtually synonymous. I don't think I have a single "valuable" in the usual sense, jewelry or collectible art or precious metal; I have things that people devised for each other. I have tools for living, and the physical embodiments of our stories about how we use them.
But as I am occasionally reminded, the more tools you rely on, the more systems you employ, the more vulnerable you become. Saturday evening, on the way to the opening of the Revolution and Patriots' brand new stadium for the Revolution's first home game of the promising new season, my car broke down. I got towed home, but later that night my whole block's electricity went out. When I went to call the power company, I realized that the LCD screen on my cell phone had stopped working. The timer for my outside door light now takes several tries to revive after power outages. My CD storage situation has been in a crisis state for about two years. I'm out of 75-watt bulbs and AAA batteries. My injured left knee is not really responding to its physical therapy. I never have enough time to do everything I want to do. My couch is falling apart, but every time I start to think about replacing it I realize that every girl I want to remember kissing, I have kissed on it.
Admittedly, of course, my knee and my time and the kisses are not systems in the same sense as my sputtering car and frazzled cell-phone, but they are entanglements all the same, and I think it was entanglements, not strictly objects, that she was trying to hand back to me when she turned down the flashlight. Arguably, although in this case it would end up officially being me doing the breaking up, I was another entanglement she found a way to hand back. And sitting by the side of the road, arguing with roadside-assistance on my malfunctioning cell-phone, helplessly infuriated that this arsenal of gadgets was causing me and my sister to miss an event we'd been looking forward to for months, I momentarily wanted to be free of all of it, too. Give it all back, the season tickets and the car and the cell-phone and the waffle irons and the rules and the lists. Unsubscribe, cancel, disconnect, delete, discontinue, quit. I wanted no people to manage, no languages to learn, no Scrabble games to win or lose, no ingredients waiting to be cooked, no closet doors I still haven't painted, nothing to detect or back up or recharge, nothing to catalog or clean, nothing to wonder if I ought to upgrade. I wanted to want nothing for which devices or companions are required. I wanted to have nothing, not only no possessions and no responsibilities, but no desires that could be thwarted, no curiosity that had to be assuaged, no dreams out of which ecstasy or sadness could uncoil. I wanted silence.
It passed. I got towed home in time to watch the game on TV, and the Revs won, Taylor Twellman getting credit for two goals to temporarily elevate my fantasy team into eighth place out of more than five thousand. An ignition coil and some spark plugs later, the car was just fine. The power came back on, but not before I had a chance to wander around my house for a while wearing the cool miniature headlamp I bought for my camping trip last fall. If physical therapy can't fix my knee, surgery will. When I find the last girl I'll need to kiss, I'll get rid of the couch. Calling them entanglements is begging the question. I do not aspire to Zen tranquility, I want delirious chaos. I no longer believe, as I once did, in the inherent value of technology, but I still believe that things are born out of the desire to instantiate insights as often as they are born out of fears of freedom. I consistently refuse to simplify. I refuse to believe that complexity is intractable.
And in these scattered moments, when I second-guess my stubbornness is sensible and want a reassuring soundtrack, it is Jane Siberry to whom I eventually return. She is, on one hand, one of my favorite muses of the evocative power of complexity. The Speckless Sky was a perennial inclusion on my desert-island-disk lists for many years, and I still believe "Mimi on the Beach", "One More Colour" and "The Taxi Ride" are exemplars of three timeless musical archetypes. But more recently and more significantly, she has become one of my direst cautionary tales. After years of intricate studio arrangements and major-label neglect, she gave both up to put out stripped-down, organic records on her own private record label, and I haven't liked a single thing she's done since. There have been live albums and collages and jazz and re-recorded juvenilia, and every song of it seems like denial and procrastination to me, like she is so petrified that she's no longer a person who can form a coherent complicated thought that she refuses to attempt it. She has simplified, and in doing so, at least for me, she has undone herself.
Or that's been my theory, at any rate, but it's kind of ugly, so I'd be happy to decide it's wrong, and another opportunity for re-evaluation presents itself with Rhino's release of the two-CD, thirty-song Siberry career retrospective Love Is Everything. The first two thirds of it adhere fairly closely to chronological order, and although I've revisited and/or reimposed this story with each disappointing new record Jane has made since 1994, I'm still startled by how precisely this compressed arc traces the path I consider the corresponding albums to represent. Disc one opens with three songs from what I think of as Jane's undistinguished prehistory, the hesitant folk-piano lament "In the Blue Light" and the sparkling acoustic-guitar carol "The Mystery at Ogwen's Farm" both from Jane Siberry itself, the Ogwen prequel "Bessie" one of the Teenager remakes from years later. You will never mistake the voice on these songs for anybody's but Jane's, doubly not when she soars into ethereal multi-part harmonies, but for me setting it in plain folk contexts is like trying to walk into the sunset on a turnpike. No Borders Here is where I come in, and although there are three songs here from that album, only "You Don't Need" appears in its place in the sequence. It's not even my favorite song from what isn't even my favorite of Jane's albums, but as the calm of Ogwen fades and the glassy synth fades and pizzicato blips swell in, two decades of emotions threaten to swallow me. It's quite possible that nothing has been more influential in the evolution of my understanding of pure Beauty than a handful of Jane Siberry's songs. "The Taxi Ride", the first of a pair from The Speckless Sky itself, is my vote for the most poignant and compassionate break-up song of all time. "One More Colour" is actually more representative, clicking and bounding and soaring as if not subject to the normal canon of physical law. I think of The Walking as Jane's incremental-improvement album, like The Seer was for Big Country, or Lionheart and The Sensual World for Kate Bush, or Under the Pink for Tori Amos, and I feel this all the more strongly as these songs segue together, "One More Colour" to the lurching "The Walking (And Constantly)" to the twitching "Red High Heels" to the breathy "The Lobby". These three albums are one of art's great trilogies, in my opinion, as masterful as anything literature or film can offer, whimsical to heartbreaking to majestic.
And then I remember how the rest of the story goes. "Bound by the Beauty" is jangly and harmless, and "Everything Reminds Me of My Dog" sounds like a jump-rope anthem, no more ridiculous in essence than "Extra Executives" or "Dancing Class" or even "Mimi on the Beach" itself, but the horrible sensation of missed opportunity starts creeping over me, and by the redemptive "The Life Is the Red Wagon" I'm submerged, imagining what it could have been a sketch for. The conflicts that tear at When I Was a Boy, for me, are exaggerated here by extracting the sultry k.d. lang duet "Calling All Angels" and the becalmed "Love Is Everything", both of which sound to me like linear extrapolations from Bound by the Beauty, and then countering them with two of the album's most densely-textured returns to studio perfectionism, the pulsing "Sail Across the Water" and the fractured dance-gospel experiment "Temple". Those were the last songs Jane would do in what I think of as her style. Maria, the next album, was jazzy and improvisational, and it does nothing at all for me, either in whole or in part. Teenager, Jane's first independent album, still strikes me as one of the worst premises in pop history, sparklessly mundane performances from after she'd lost the will to compose of sub-par material from before she'd learned to write. The mishmash of releases that followed merely kill time, the contrast between genius and missed points never clearer than when the cut-and-paste job "Peony" and the muttered retraction "Mimi Speaks" are here interrupted by "Mimi on the Beach", deferred from sequence in order to set up the later narrative. Jane complains, somewhere in the liner notes, that "Mimi" is not a real pop song, so it's unfair to fault her for not writing more pop songs "like" it, but to me this is wild disingenuousness. "Mimi on the Beach" is a brilliant (and brilliantly titled) cross between art-music minimalism and kaleidoscopic New Wave charm, the grand synthesis of Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" and the Parachute Club's "Rise Up". The spoken verses and skipped beats don't diminish its appeal, they just make the poppier parts seem brighter. And yes, the song does its subject some glib disservices, but the revisionist character deconstruction that follows here, excerpted from the erratic live recording Lips, seems to me less like redress or the application of mature wisdom, and more like a sadly self-destructive attempt to despoil something flawed but wonderful.
But if you already love Jane, you already have the albums, and if haven't made up your mind, this compilation is not the way to. Hers is a complex story about our ambivalent relationship with complexity, and abridging it in this simpleminded way deforms it. After you listen to this, I claim you need to go listen to No Borders Here, The Speckless Sky and The Walking again for a good solid week, and if you're going to do that, what's the point of this anthology? If there is one, it has to be the last four songs. Jane wrote a series called "Map of the World", part one on No Borders Here, part two on The Speckless Sky and part three on Bound by the Beauty, and this set ends by playing them in order, and appending one solitary new recording, a part four. Here, then, could be Jane's career-spanning epic, and her chance to make me reconsider my opinion of her decline. One four-part suite to reassert her brilliance, and one ring to bind them. But instead, in four songs she recapitulates everything I hate about what she has decided to become, and reaffirms everything I think I believe in opposition. Part one is a clattering roto-tom exhibition, Jane's voices and guitar-stabs twirling around each other like animate bells bewitched by twilight. Part two is impish retrograde, the one song from The Speckless Sky with more childlike glee than its counterpart on No Borders Here. Part three begins corrupting the legacy, twisting it into a meandering parody of the notion of mapping anything, featuring one of humanity's finest and most distinctive singers doing her best to sound unremarkable and anonymous. But part four is almost too horrible to be believed. Jane breaks out some studio gadgets again, that's the good news. The bad news is that they're some new studio gadgets, and she doesn't know how to talk them into making any sounds other than the ones they come with. Lost and lost, she uses them to make what sounds to me amounts to a grotesque caricature of "Temple" gone nightmarishly awry. If I never hear another drum loop laced with deliberate LP-surface-noise static after this, it will be far too soon. Worse than singing like nobody, here she more or less gives up singing entirely, opting to chant repetitive phrases over repetitive bits of directionless piano. There's no real melody, the harmonies are out of focus or out of frame, the "playing" is almost wholly non-musical. And there's no end, she just bumps the tempo knob accidentally, lets the loop grind on in slow motion for a few more turgid measures, and then shuts it off. This is not just a bad song, it's a travesty. I've been holding out hope that Jane would awake from her long trance and start making, again, the kind of song that nobody else ever fully understood, but I think now I don't believe it's still possible. I think it's over. I think that in trying to save herself from being consumed by the music industry, she has won the most Pyrrhic of victories, and destroyed herself far more thoroughly than Warner Brothers would have bothered. The closest I have come to understanding how people who believe in Heaven think it will feel was standing in the lobby of the Charles Playhouse, on one cold night in 1993, waiting to be let in for Jane's second of two shows that night, hearing her voice drift faintly through closed balcony doors as she sang the last couple songs of the first one. Maybe I've also come no closer to picturing the rictus that people who believe in Hell think an eternity of torment could etch into a face than I do tracing the lines that lead nowhere on the scarred surface of this fourth map. My resolve is redoubled and redoubled and redoubled that this will never happen to me. Whatever we are, it would be so much easier not to be, so much less frustrating not to struggle. Every conviction we grasp is an invitation to more pain. Whatever awkward new truth we try to find a way to articulate, there's always an easier lie, easier to believe and easier to say. It would hurt less if I just ignored these records, and it would be much easier to explain. But the more you simplify, the less you touch. You hand back enough flashlights, you will be left in the dark. And out of the dark you will only have voices, beckoning and warding, to guide you.