The brief music-box chime that opens Magic Neighbor works like an alert that we’re entering a dream-space, especially since it begins a lovely instrumental that resembles a film theme. If this is a film, though, it’s one that exists inside our own mind, or in the mind of Lisa Germano. Her music is internal in that way. The music and lyrics reflect the myriad personal dualities and conflicting feelings within us all.
Over the years she has stripped away the gauzy and foggy qualities of her music, clarifying her approach to the point where it stands out within the music of today as possessing true vision. Magic Neighbor, more or less her ninth album since her 1991 solo debut On the Way Down From the Moon Palace, picks up musically where 2007’s death meditation In the Maybe World left off, with minimalist settings, heavy use of piano, and a spotlight on her breathy vocals. The instruments bring a balance of elements, among them the timelessness of American song standards (piano), the drama and romance Hollywood (rising and falling strings), and the confessional (acoustic guitar), all qualities within Germano’s unique songs themselves.
Musically it’s more a flight of fancy than In the Maybe World, with the unity, romantic nature, and hidden strangeness of Hollywood film scores. It’s easy to hear why Young God Records head Micheal Gira said he is reminded of early Disney songs and the One From the Heart soundtrack. It resembles movie music, with circular and repeating themes, and instrumentals that reprise elements of the song’s melodies. But more than the backdrop to fiction this seems a very individual soundtrack to lives lived with questions and conflicts: human beings as living musicals. When the melodies become variations of each other, it’s like trains of thought intersecting and diverging inside our minds.
Near the album’s beginning, “To the Mighty One” and “Simple” both stand as internal conversations within a song. Germano bounces ideas back and forth with herself or an unseen force, the music changing as the feelings of the lyrics change. “To the Mighty One” is serious as she addresses a controlling force, and then turns into dancing-on-air when she uses her imagination to take control herself, to decide that “it’s a beautiful day” and make it so. “Simple” alternates strident guitar-strumming with similarly dreamy music, again tied to the words she sings. “But if I ran away…”, she starts, and the strings enter and lift her up, like Fred Astaire dancing up the walls or a ballet dancer twirling until her feet lift off the ground. It’s music as expressive of our hopeful dreams as it is of our darkest moments here on the ground.
Magic Neighbor consistently manages to be visceral and fanciful at the same time. The haunted title track captures the weirdness of our thoughts, while also being a political statement of sorts about violence, against animals for example: “he must be god / he can turn cats / into pieces of furniture.” “The Prince of Plati” is a gorgeous piano ballad filled with cutting, tender and rueful sentiments between people.
What she sings in “Suli-Mon” sounds like nonsense, the language of nightmares and dreams. Over lovely lullaby music, her voice twists and gets mangled. On the piano her hands slip off and bang their way down the keys, noises that still work as components of a melody.
That song is maybe the clearest example of how there’s invention going on beyond just the startling and rich atmosphere established on the album. This is fertile ground for Germano’s imagination. For its first minute “A Million Times” seems to be one of the more straightforward songs, voice over guitar, and then a pleasant cacophony of toy percussion begins in the background. Germano’s violin enters at an off angle, like an orchestra warming up, while her beguiling singing goes through the cycle of a back-and-forth relationship, making human drama sound like a lark. The serene piano ballad “Snow” also incorporates some off-key or at least unlikely notes, in a typically gorgeous way. It contains the lyric that best sums up both my reaction to her music and one of the driving forces behind her music, seeing differently: “I love how you see things”.