Three Graces Part 2 – Jane Siberry
II. Queen Jane Approximately
Jane Siberry, like Joni Mitchell, is from Canada. From the mid eighties through the early nineties, I still scoured the radio dial looking for something, anything to inspire. From what I heard music was continuing its long slide begun in the ‘70’s. I was about to tune out for good. If I’d known what Jane was doing during that time I would have revised my version of music history. She was busy making four extraordinary albums.
I came to the last, perhaps greatest, but definitely deepest, first: When I Was a Boy (1993.) It’s no mystery why the title song was the first to get me. It’s the masterpiece song on an album that’s itself a masterpiece. A classic pop “hook” melody of ‘60’s vintage quality and integrity. Little breath catching twists in the harmony. The literally mesmerizing quality of her voice, that even hearing it in my head now sends angels dancing up and down the back of my neck.
Her lyrics are audacious. By some sorcery she’s attempting to bridge the chasm between opposite understandings of love, to fuse them into one. As she repeats last line, “Love is everything,” I hear “Everything is love,” “God is Love,” the ultimate expression of spiritual affirmation, of the hope of higher realms. Yet preceding that affirmation is an all too of –this-world story, the dark side, love lost, abandoned, dead.
With words alone she might have never succeeded in fusing the two visions of love, but with her abundant musical resources she does – squaring the circle, expressing the boundless hope and despair of love at the very same moment. Wow.
The best-known song on the album is “Calling all Angels,” and it’s fine. But neither of those essentially pop songs hint at the other stuff hiding on that record. It’s avant-garde, with dissonances, sound effects and spoken word passages. In the “The Vigil” she steps past audacity to attempt what in any other hands would be doomed to something ludicrous or worse. She describes the death of a loved one – it’s never clear whom – from the bedside, from someplace so deep in her heart that you’re there. Not just as her, but as the one dying. It’s frightening. Also perhaps…enlightening. Indeed, the next cut, “At the Beginning of Time,” hints at a world on the other side of death – timeless, supernaturally calm. “Sail Across the Water,” and “Sweet Incarnadine” also hint heavily of other realms. It’s all a little scary, because listening you feel yourself begin to transport, somewhere…
She’s evangelizing without a hint of preaching, from the force of her own desire, her passion for transcendence. In the first cut she sings, “I want into your temple,” with such conviction that I can see them inside–monks, priests, sadhus –running to let her in the door before she knocks it down.
Jane’s early great albums – The Speckless Sky (1985), The Walking (1987) and Bound by the Beauty (1989) – show a wider range of moods and subject matter, as if she’s been kicking around trying stuff out on her way to her masterpiece. She’s whimsical and funny – “Everything Reminds Me of My Dog.” She somehow pulls off a song about a hockey game (“Hockey”) and gives ample portents of the ecstatic spirituality that comes to fruition in When I was a Boy (“The Speckless Sky”) and many others. She’s convincing on the subject of agape, or brotherly love (“The Lobby”) and utterly devastating on the end of the passionate variety (The Taxi Ride.) That song should be stickered: “Don’t listen too soon after a breakup or you might end up tearing your heart out.”
In an unsettling echo of Joni Mitchell (see Three Graces Part 1), after When I Was a Boy, Jane Siberry also wandered off to musical places I don’t want to go. But I’m pleased to have seen her perform a few years ago, and her voice still mesmerized, leaving me as happily mystified as ever. What she didn’t do was play any of her old songs – which disappointed me, until I realized that it’s part of her non-comprising practice of what she preaches. She sells records for whatever you want to pay for them, has given up her possessions, including her guitar – she plays whatever is given to her when she performs.
Like Joni before her, she clearly holds to some strong countercultural ideals, and I respect that commitment.
If her audience has paid the price of no new masterworks, she’s well earned her right to live as she wants with those 4 great albums.