[27 May 2008]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The opening track to Christine Fellows’ Nevertheless is the instrumental “Let Us Have Done with the Umbrella of Our Contagion”, a piece that sounds an awful lot like a Danny Elfman score. It is quaint and lilting, almost childlike. But, in the same way Elfman’s compositions are often accompanied by the off-kilter visuals of the likes of Tim Burton, Fellows’ is and isn’t paving the way for the rest of the record with the opener.
Musically, the track fits with the rest of the record, as a gang of instruments not often featured in pop music—the ukulele, glockenspiel, and xylophone—clang and clap together to create these ramshackle compositions. It sounds lively and spirited, setting us up for some quirky sunny-day pop.
But then come the first lines of “Not Wanted for the Voyage”, where Fellows sings “Bury your dead and celebrate, the world is ending (finally).” The fatalism of the language, and the resigned joy Fellows works into it, go completely against the musical palate they’re laid on, so much so that the music itself actually sounds different when coupled with lyrics. The lightness now feels like emptiness, the energy like desperation. And it is in that final, parenthetical word, that “finally”, that Fellows shows her greatest gift. Her ability to lean on a phrase or a single detail, to press it for just the right amount of juice, is what drives these songs and has made her one of the more formidable songwriters going in the past few years.
The next few tracks, particularly “Saturday Night on Utopia Parkway” and “The Spinster’s Almanac”, show her seemingly effortless ability with melody. The songs are catchy and well-crafted and filled with strange and affecting images. Locks of hair are hidden in match boxes for years. Plastic lobsters adorn humble living rooms. And in both songs, however perfect their hooks may be, Fellows can’t seem to color within the lines. Her vocal delivery, here and throughout the record, often veers off the melody or crams an extra few syllables into an extra beat you didn’t hear coming. But it isn’t carelessness that pushes Fellows’ lines to the brink, that crams words on top of each other, but rather a dedication to a cast of characters on Nevertheless that could live inside the lines if they wanted to. That are too broken and desperately searching to even see the lines and know what they are. These songs could be perfect, even bits of chamber pop, but then they would lose all the stuff that make you go back to the stereo and play them again, looking for the next quirky detail, the next word-stuffed line you missed.
From there, the album settles into a quiet, deliberately slow middle. Many of these songs were originally written to score a dance performance in Toronto in 2007, and the cluster of songs in the album’s center—all off-kilter and trudging, short of percussion—don’t sound much at all like the pop music we heard to start off the record. These are dark tunes from a macabre musical, and while most of it works, including the heartbreaking “What Makes the Cherry Red” and “The Parlour Rollers”, the lone full-band flourish of the bunch, some of it does slow down and draw out too much for its own good. “Cruel Jim” strays too far from its melody, and the images she emphasizes, like the scars on Jim’s face, fall a little flat. “Poor Robin” starts off as a dark lullaby, but cuts itself off too soon.
But these low points are really not that low, and they lead us out of the dark center of the record and into the light of the title track, where we see small beams of sun through spider cracks in windows and thin seams between curtains. It is as effective a pop song as there is on the record, and pumps some life back in just when the quiet middle was starting to fade. By coming back to something up-tempo, Fellows’ once again reminds us how in control she is. No matter how broken the pieces of the album, Fellows is brilliant at bringing them all together into a whole.
Nevertheless shouldn’t be as good as it is. It references and responds to the work of Marianne Moore and other poets, it avoids percussion that would ground the music and give it more body, and the titles are self-indulgent and long. This album should be precious and pretentious and should ultimately ring hollow. But Christine Fellows executes these songs too well to slip into those traps, and delivers each song with an earnest care that keeps this album from being high-minded and clever. It is a smart album to be sure, but one that always feels before it thinks.