So the new wave thing leads to the New Romantic thing leads to the alternative rock thing leads to the grunge thing and am I already getting too old for this? Pop culture, in moving ever forward, also somehow stands still as your actual life really does move on. You grow up. Maybe you get married. Maybe you even have children. Dreams change, life gets challenging. Musical fads ultimately look like musical fads. But maybe you suspect there's something deeper to be had, both in music and in life.
When I Was a Boy showed me the way. One minute I was in Tower Records in New York City in the summer of 1993, briefly browsing, the next minute I was leaving the store with this Jane Siberry album I hadn't otherwise realized existed, never mind that I was going to buy.
I knew Canada's Jane Siberry from two of her previous albums as an odd but compelling singer/songwriter with an expressive voice and a gift for the inscrutable. Here she was now, on the cover of a CD, levelling a gauzy but fiery green-eyed stare at me. Had it been a full-sized vinyl record the picture alone might've made me faint.
And how to describe the music wrapped underneath the cover? Moody, lovely, intense, unorthodox, wistful, soulful, ethereal, penetrating. Beautiful melodies intermingle with meandering tone-poems; forceful rhythms drive some of the numbers, others glide with improvisational wispiness. It is an album as unlikely to achieve mass success (it didn't) as it is likely to sear itself upon the soul of anyone fortunate enough to cross its path.
"Calling All Angels" is the ringer here---a song that many people actually do know, from a variety of sources (among other things, it played a major role in the 1998 movie "Pay It Forward"). Beneath the banal concept of seeking supernatural assistance for our earthly troubles lies the heartbeat of a deeply spiritual lament. With her aching, confidential voice and her gift for incisive melody, she inserts us into the middle of big fat existential questions, without fuss or pretence. I don't think I knew quite how much I wanted and needed someone to put me there until I listened to and began to absorb this unique album.
And each day you gaze upon the sunset with such love and intensity
It's almost...it's almost as if you could only crack the code
Then you'd finally understand what this all means
When I first heard this line, it took me back to a day in college, maybe 15 years earlier, when I was studying next to a window in a library on a high floor with a view, that particular day, of a stunning, once-in-a-decade sunset. And I was absorbing, alone, the crazy beauty of it when I heard the clamour of scrambling footsteps in the stairwell, and onto the otherwise empty floor burst a guy I didn't know, gasping for breath while looking out the window. He ran all the way up, he explained, without being asked for an explanation, because he knew he needed to see this sunset. We watched otherwise in silence but were spirited by the companionship. And now here I was, college days long past, the father now of two small children, but suddenly, again, opened to a mystery at once immediate and elusive. If Talking Heads had alerted me to the possibility of rock'n'roll as meaningful art, Jane Siberry was now establishing for me the possibility of rock'n'roll that entirely transcended rock'n'roll. I was an adult now, and this album both informed me of that strange reality and gave me something of a road map for the years to come.
"Love Is Everything" likewise pairs what sounds like a Hallmark Card sentiment to subtle, mind-bending lyrics. Starting as if in the middle of an argument (the songs here often plunge us into unidentified circumstances), the verses begin with a series of possible explanations to an unstated problem:
Maybe it was to learn how to love
Maybe it was to learn how to leave
Maybe it was for the games we played
The chorus deftly complicates the title's connotation when the full line is revealed ("Love is everything they said it would be"), and goes on to argue indirectly for the appropriateness of love's painful complexities. Mystery prevails; the line that seems the song's fulcrum is also one of its most impenetrable: "You're banging on the beach like an old tin drum." I remember listening to this song over and over in the car when I was out on mundane errands later that summer on vacation on the shores of Lake Michigan. Being in the car on an errand was one of the few times I could be alone during the vacation---we not only had two small children with us but two sets of grandparents. I had never been to the northern Michigan beaches before; the place seemed alien to my ocean-centric self. My whole life at that point seemed alien to me. I still felt like a kid, still waiting to figure out what I was going to be when I grew up, and yet I was a father, and just beginning to internalize the changes a love relationship experiences when the parenting journey begins. To this day I don't know what she meant by the lyric, and yet there I was, briefly alone in my car, banging on the beach like an old tin drum---a beach with weird, salt-free waves.
Losing yourself to the music
Songs flow and coalesce on When I Was a Boy, with lyrical clues running in and out of separate songs like a soul experiencing a variety of lifetimes. We get a catchy chorus ("Sail Across the Water"), a soulful chant ("All the Candles in the World"), and a delicate improvisation ("Sweet Incarnadine"). The songs go so deeply inside that they come back out; Siberry sings here with an ache that tantalizes, and dares. I don't think I knew how much I needed, myself, to examine my insides until I began to lose myself in this voice and these songs.
Most of all, perhaps "The Gospel According to Darkness," which is as enigmatic a call to mindfulness and loving kindness as I have yet heard committed to a sound recording. As the quiet opening verse leads into an emphatic chorus, she then manages to ask one of the great unanswered questions of life on earth:
I see you lookin' around at the people on the street
Well, things aren't what they seem
If you push them hard enough
You'll find that most of them do not feel worthy of love
Now how did this come to be?
The soundscape shimmers, music flowing so organically that the subsequent verses don't feel like distinct entities but breathing, changeable unfoldings---an impression furthered by Siberry's inclination not only to layer her vocals but to sing with herself from two (or more) perspectives. She is puzzling out all sides, all perspectives. If she could only crack the code, she'd finally understand what this all means.
"At the Beginning of Time" strikes me as the psycho-spiritual pièce de résistance of this ravishing and challenging album. Slow-moving yet theatrical, the song is a lullaby-like vision of the origins of the world, imagined by human bystanders who never could have been there.
At the beginning of time
Before there were waves
We'd sit in our boats
We'd float there all day
The song drifts in echoey tranquillity until a gut-level tom-tom lick kicks us into an active, dream-like anecdote---just enough motion and drama to sustain this otherwise meditative song to its full seven minutes, and focus us anew on the brain-shining strangeness and beauty of her lyrics, some of which are spoken and yet register as singing:
You know what I think I miss most about that time?
Was the quality of blackness
It was soft somehow in the absence of fear
You could take it into your mouth
And send it out through your teeth
You know what I think I miss most about that time? That time, that is, when I was first learning and absorbing When I Was a Boy? It was the quality of Siberry's lithe and passionate voice. Voices, in the end, are indescribable, but there was something in the strength and depth and vulnerability of her tone that lasered itself into my heart. I'm not even sure I hear her voice now, on this album, the same way I heard it then, when I most needed it---when my life was changing, when futures were ever unclear, and something in this slippery, enthralling work told me it was best to surrender to the mystery.
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