“I only know that you were there
I looked into your eyes
And there I saw a world
So full of love
And darkness, too
I held my breath
And with the breath of God
I came rushing through.”
Geranium. Jane Siberry
A third blog post on Jane Siberry??? Who would have predicted it? I don’t think we’ve done a three parter on ANYONE in MBM’s 5 year history, so this is a first. (To be fair, I think I mentioned Mr. Pauls in three blogs AT LEAST in January of 2015, but that’s DIFFERENT).
So, I think this one will be more of an album review of her newest release, the kick-started Ulysses’s Purse.
If you read over the last post, you’ll get a sense of my meandering relationship with Jane Siberry, and how that one album, Bound by the Beauty, seeped into my consciousness and just stayed there. I still think, for me, that one album was a perfect creation and everything she’s done since has been unfairly measured against it (by me).
So old habits die hard, and I guess my first bench-mark upon listening the first time was (and always will be), “how does it compare to Bound by the Beauty?”
Well, it doesn’t compare. Nothing could.
But I’ll say this: it is probably the BEST Jane Siberry album since Bound by the Beauty, and I’ve been living with it for over a month, and I’m still discovering little things about it, and I am still charmed by it. How many albums can you say that about? It’s not the type of album that will blow you away first listen, but I am so glad that I gave it many listens (and still am) because it is full of beautiful little moments and it sounds EXACTLY what you’d want a Jane Siberry album to sound like. Most songs are over the 5 minute mark, immediately disqualifying them from any chance of radio play (not that you’d expect Jane Siberry to appear next to Katy Perry and after Nickelback in any situation). Some of them meander and take their time, but I think that’s the very point. It’s the journey, and the colours and sights along the way that are important here, not the radio-edit friendly hooks. And yes, there are some tracks that I skip over, even now. (Not many, but one or two). There’s one song that just is so soft and delicate that I can’t really hear it properly in the car (where I’ve listened to the album the most times), and there’s another track that’s just a minute or so of weird ambient sounds. (C’mon, Jane.) I almost expected one of those “hidden tracks” at the end of the album. Remember those? They were super popular in the mid 90s, where the “last song” on a CD would finish and then you’d get like 14 minutes of dead air and then you’d get some “secret song” that would play and it would be like the musical equivalent of having Nick Fury come out and say something clever in EVERY MARVEL MOVIE OF THE LAST DECADE.
But I digress. There are no secret songs on Ulysses’s Purse, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any surprises. If anything, the whole album is like a puzzle that I’m still figuring out.
Do you guys want me to do a track by track rundown? Okay. Let’s go.
- Hide not your Light
Our first taste of “New Siberry” in 20 years, and it’s bursting with joy and fun. Bolstered by long time collaborators Rebecca Jenkins and k.d. lang (yes, THAT k.d. lang), the song’s chorus is “I love you, yes I do. I love EVERYTHING about you” and at first I thought it was a straight up love song, but recently I’m getting the feeling like she’s singing this to herself as almost a self-esteem raiser, or a rallying try to “hide not your light under a bushel” (there she goes again with those casual liturgical references). It’s possible (and surely probable) that there are multiple interpretations to it. Still, what a tour-de-force to kick things off, and just try saying the line, “I love your smile, your wide open prairie smile”, without smiling yourself. I BET YOU CAN’T.
- Dark Tent
Admittedly, this is one of the few “skip-over” songs for me. Maybe because it is so quiet and slow (I hate to use the word plodding here, but it comes to mind), but maybe it’s just one of those songs that I haven’t connected with yet. Another possibility is that I just want to get to the next track, which is one of my favourites on the album. I’m talking about:
- Walk on Water
This song is so self-assured and perfect, it makes you wonder how it hasn’t appeared anywhere before, and the answer to that is that IT HAS. Yes, this song, along with quite a few of the ones on “Ulysses’s Purse” originally appeared on albums produced by JS’s Issa persona. So in a way, those albums were like Off-Off Broadway workshops and this album is like the Broadway debut. (Sorry, I am constantly thinking in musical theatre terms ever since Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton hit me like a bus earlier this year). I sort of knew this before, and in her kickstarter updates, she alluded to changing songs around after playing them live and seeing how they worked, etc etc, so the listener is the beneficiary of all this “work-shopping” over the last decade. The NYT mention her briefly in a recent article. You get the sense on some of these songs that they are still not in their final form. And what is a record anyway, but a RECORD of a certain place or time. (I think I’m paraphrasing Ani DiFranco there). If these songs were re-recorded a year from now, or ten years from now I’m sure there would be differences. In any case, towards the end of this song you hear Jane sing, “I think I heard my name”, and then you hear the back up singer (I think it must be Rebecca Jenkins) sing, “our names”, and then Jane repeats it, “our names” and the song ends and oh my goodness that moment gives me goosebumps.
One of the shorter songs on the album, but a sweet and lovely show of support and solidarity for whomever this song was written. It also is a chance to get to hear Jane’s vocal range on this one, as she gets up there at some point. I think of this song as a companion piece to Morag, which we’ll get to by and by.
This is an example of a song that has grown and grown on me with every listen. (It’s also the song from which I’ve quoted at the beginning of the last three blog posts). It sounds like a love song, but then when you pay attention to the lyrics in the verses, you realize she is at a funeral for someone really dear to her. A cousin? A friend? But I love how you get to the chorus the first time and you hear the lines about getting lifted up and holding the cup but she only gets as far as “I saw a world” and then it breaks off like she loses her nerve and it isn’t until the second time through that you get the whole “so full of love, and darkness too” line.
- Everything you knew as a child
This one is a wonderful reminder to not lose our “childlike wonder” as we age and face the danger of becoming cynical. The song begins with a person feeding a sparrow at an outdoor café and she is scorned by passersby. The question “It’s just a sparrow, is there anyone sane left around here?” is answered with the chorus, “Everything you knew is good and true when you were JUST a child, it hasn’t gone away.” This, as it turns out, is my wife’s favourite song on the album. I really love that she loves this album too. I have a tendency, when I find something I like, to push it like crazy on people. “Here, listen to this song. Look, I left this article here for you to read. Did you get a chance to see that youtube clip I sent you?” etc etc. I know if someone did that to me, I would probably shut down and hate whatever thing was being pushed on me on general principle, so I was delighted when I learned that my wife had been listening to this album in the car too, and that she was discovering it in her own way and her own time, and maybe connecting to different things than me, but in a natural way.
- Five and Dime
This is one of those songs that appeared first in the Issa era, and it’s a signature “talk-sing” song. A style that Jane sometimes goes to. It doesn’t have great repeat listenability, but I rarely skip over it. It’s based on the lovely notion that we are all connected in some way and that everyone has hidden strengths and talents that we might not see at first glance. We are all columns in the same temple. What a lovely thought!
Oh man. This song. I find myself tearing up on a regular basis listening to this album, and nowhere does it happen more frequently that in this song, Morag. I don’t know if this is a reference to Margaret Laurence’s character, Morag Gunn, from The Diviners, but what I get from this song is that if Jane Siberry was given five minutes to dispel advice and encouragement to a younger person just setting out in the world, this song would be it. It’s just a wonderful pep talk, and you could almost imagine that it is a friend talking to another younger friend, who is about to have a difficult talk with her own mother, and that difficult conversation is recorded in the next song:
- Mama Hereby
A conversation between a daughter and mother, who haven’t had the closest or smoothest of relationships. By the end of you get a sense of closure and moving on for both of them. Maybe the protagonist is thinking of all that wonderful advice she received in the previous song. Catharsis.
- In my Dream
Along with Geranium, one of the most poetic songs on the album. The imagery of running with her father and mother and siblings as a wee child is sweet and comforting and the whole song has a gossamer glaze on it which gives it a dream-like quality.
- The Great Train
I’d love to hear this song performed live. I imagine the whole crowd singing the “I’ll be on my way” refrain after every line, and it really makes me think of People Get Ready. Another “shiver” moment when she sings the words “Love is Everything” and it is the exactly melody as when she sang those words way back in 1993. In fact, if I ever get around to making my ultimate Jane Siberry mixtape, I’ve already decided I’m beginning the playlist with Love is Everything and ending with The Great Train. Book ends. (Also for you music nerds out there, you get some nice melisma action on this one when she sings, “Like this”.)
- Ulysses’s Purse
Okay. It’s a minute or so of ambient sounds that MIGHT be snippets of all the songs that have come before? It’s really not something I have much to say about, except it goes into the category of Five and Dime and Dark Tent as skippable. AT LEAST FOR ME. I bet this track is someone’s favourite out there. I mean it shares the name of the album. It’s the title track, for goodness sake, so it’s gotta be important. It just doesn’t do anything for me, YET.
- Let me be a living statue
This one features k.d. lang again, and I’m pretty sure this is my wife’s SECOND favourite song on the album. (She’s mentioned it on more than one occasion at any rate). It moves at a majestic pace, and includes the line, “consider this the lily”, and for the bulk of the time this project was underway, the album was going to be called Consider the Lily, so that’s where THAT comes from. I’d say that this song is “vintage Siberry” in the way that is slowly builds and unfolds and just takes its time getting to where its going. For those Siberry fans who have been with her even before the Bound days, this may be the song that you connect with the most on this album.
And then, you just let the CD play on and you’re back at Hide not your Light and you’re off again, listening for new sounds, subtle harmonies, obscure references, hidden meanings, serendipitous connections, ………..and melismas. Always the melismas, of course.
This may very well be Jane Siberry’s last album. She’s hinted that that might be the case. I hope not. I hope this is the beginning of a new, creatively fertile period for her, in the same way that we’ve entered into a new golden era of Star Wars content. (The trailer for Rogue One was released today, you guys, and it LOOKS GOOD. Mon Mothma is in it! She’s kind of a Siberryesque figure, isn’t she? I mean, if Jane Siberry lived in the Star Wars universe, I could see her at the leader of the rebel alliance. Either that, or hanging out in the Mos Eisley cantina. Maybe both.)
But even if this is the last we hear from Jane Siberry, musically, I’m so glad it happened. It connects with me in ways I can’t really even describe, not even after three blog posts. I’m still hanging onto that “ambassador” disc, still not sure who to give it to, or what to do with it. I really should do something. I shouldn’t be “hiding [her] light under a bushel” anymore. It’s time I shared her “wide open prairie smile”. [Tell me you’re smiling]
Onedol plus onedol equals toodles, everyone! (I stole that from Brooklyn 99).