When you think about country music, you tend to usually think about it in serious terms, Johnny Cash walking the line and all. However, humour has played a large role in country music since its humble beginnings. After all, to use Johnny Cash again as an analogy, he sang both about “A Boy Named Sue” and being “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”. Turn on nu-country radio today, and you’re bound to hear a song about some guy being in love with his tractor. Cheesy, I know, but songs like this exist. This is where Canadian alt-country chanteuse Carolyn Mark comes into the picture. She, to borrow again from Johnny Cash, definitely and deftly walks the line between sly, sardonic humor with a wink and deadpan seriousness. In fact, when listening to her eighth and most recent solo record The Queen of Vancouver Island, which she originally hails from on British Columbia’s West Coast, you would be hard pressed to tell when Mark is being earnest and forthright, and when she’s only joking in her lyrics. There’s a pervasive feeling of double edged-ness that brings a certain bite to her music the more and more that it reveals itself to you. Put another way, Carolyn Mark must be one helluva poker player, as she tends to bluff and mask her true feelings very well.
A case in point is the opening lines to the song “Baby Goats”, which goes, “Baby goats at the petting zoo / Sunshine / Little kids everywhere / Not mine.” On one hand, those lines can be taken for an either an expression of regret (Mark wishes she had kids of her own) or relief (glad that she still has her freedom). The rest of the song doesn’t offer much in terms of further clues, other than to offer that “everyone is so in love” during the chorus, as though she’s looking from the outside in. Thus, the song becomes one big enigmatic puzzle, and thinking about it too much might strain your head. The key, then, is to sort of just sit back and enjoy the music on its own shimmery countrified terms—at least, on this one song. Another sign that Mark is a bit of a master manipulator comes with her choice of cover material. Here, she takes on Elvis Presley, but not the Elvis of the late ‘50s, pre-Army days for which much of his reputation rests. No, she zooms in on his lesser ‘60s work, cherry picking a song from his less renowned movie roles in the form of “Flaming Star”, which gallops along here with its chicka-chicka guitar line and mariachi horns. Mark takes something that could be considered to be kitsch and somehow, magically, elevates it to another level entirely.
Essentially, from the two examples given above, you would get the sense that Carolyn Mark is a bit of a musical chameleon, always changing her colours to suit whatever muse she happens to be following. Sometimes those colors change in the same song, such as on closer “You’re Not a Whore (If No One’s Paying)”, which sounds like it could have come out of a Klondike Gold Rush-era saloon, complete with gargling noises for a solo (and it must take a certain amount of talent to gargle water—at least, I think its water—effortlessly along to a melody) and a children’s choir (which is a bit of an unfortunate, shocking choice on a song essentially that touches on prostitution). On one hand, you can take the song at face value and make it into something of a feminist anthem. On the other, you can clearly hear Mark’s tongue buried deeply into her cheek. And then there’s the nature of the gargling and the kids’ voices, which adds to the jokey feel of the track. So, again, is Mark being dead serious, or she providing a wink and smile as she goes along on this song? Hard to say, hard to say.
Overall, this constant push-and-pull between the serene and sober topicality of the material and the off-the-cuff and sarcastic tone of Mark’s singing, giving the material a bit of wry humour, is something that is either going to leave the listener cold and unfeeling, or something that will pull you into Mark’s craft. The first time I heard The Queen of Vancouver Island, I was definitely in the former camp. However, the more I listened to this album, I was able to appreciate the various and multiple hues contained between the lyrics and the delivery. In fact, it’s enough to make me want to return to this album again and again and really try to dig deeper and parse into the meaning behind Mark’s songwriting and performance choices. There’s a lot of personal anguish to revel in (“My best friend told me to stay home and write this song / Instead of going to your show and cheering you on” Mark snarls on “Best Friend”), but your guess is as good as mine as to the singer’s intent behind all of this is. “Now in the verse I just say some shit leading up to the chorus / Because everybody wants to sing along,” Mark sings on the title track. That might be the ultimate summation of all this here: maybe this is just Mark singing some “shit” that isn’t personal or makes sense in the slightest. That makes this record all the more compelling, watching an artist straddle between emotions and “pretty words” (in Mark’s parlance and lyrics), and trying to see if it does, in some manner, tie itself together. It may or may not, but it’s pretty compelling watching Mark try to walk that line between both poles. The Queen of Vancouver Island isn’t perfect, and is, at times, pretty baffling, but its flaws just make it all the more endearing and entertaining. It’s hard to say whether this long player is one big put on or is dead serious, but such is the nature of country music: you sometimes don’t know when to take it as one big joke or not.