Mary Fahl

The Other Side of Time

by Peter Su

10 September 2003


In the press release for Mary Fahl‘s debut album, it quotes Variety declaring that she is “earthier than Enya, more nuanced than Celine Dion and avoids the bloodless goth of Lisa Gerrard.” She’s also less self-righteous than Jewel, less overrated than Barbra Streisand, and tells less boobie jokes than the Bloodhound Gang. Just like virtually every other artist you can think of. So what does any of it mean?

The title track, one of the better songs from the album, a song with a clearly discernible emotion and meaning, ends with the lines “We all are just points on some line / We’ll meet again, we’ll meet in time”. A nice sentiment, but nonsensical nonetheless. The line drawn by Fahl isn’t A.E. Housman’s moonlit road that is bound, by the curvature of the earth, to return, nor is it Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence that, given infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters, argues that all things will be recreated. The poetic conceit actually contradicts the sentiment—why, then, does she use it? Because it’s still a poetic conceit and Mary Fahl is someone who believes that being poetic and wrong is still better than being down-to-earth and right.

cover art

Mary Fahl

The Other Side of Time

(Sony Classical)
US: 27 May 2003
UK: Available as import

Lest it seem that I’m making too much out of what might just be a forced rhyme, I do so because the incident reflects the general attitude of the project. Thus, one of her shortest, most concise, typically muddled lyrics is this verse from “Dream of You”: “Beauty bare / Sweet despair / Love remains unseen”. It’s symptomatic of her learned art school artiness that she’s almost never willing to have a straight emotion. She spends a good part of the album sorrowing over her happiness and wallowing in her sadness simply because the perceived complexity of those situations will—she thinks—lend her shallow emotions and shallow thoughts a subtlety they otherwise lack. Straight happiness and sadness are usually too direct and simplistic for someone of her artistic aspirations. Apparently, she didn’t believe Oscar Wilde when he wrote that he loved simple things because “they are the last refuge of the complex.”

Among an entire album that’s pretty in a soothing sort of way, an album that actually grows on you the longer you hear it, there are a few moments distinguishable for being especially pretty, as with “Going Home”, Fahl’s contribution to the soundtrack of the film Gods and Generals. But even those moments are usually pretty only to the degree of being, assuming that you already have the album, nice to listen to if it’s already playing. Only very rarely do you get something to the degree of being so pretty as to justify your making the effort to go out and buy this album (or even searching it out from your collection and especially putting it on).

The one clear exception to the otherwise bland pleasantries is “Annie, Roll Down Your Window”, a genuinely sweet song about Fahl traveling with her sister, where her breathy, distant voice, too abstract for passionate, living emotions, actually becomes appropriate to recounting sentimental reminiscence. It’s cause for guarded optimism that, in her liner notes, Fahl writes that her sister “should have 1,000 songs written about her.” I’ll be perfectly happy if she writes even 10 or so more of a similar quality for her next album. Even in the unlikelihood that might happen, it would be quite a good thing.

More likely, though, Mary Fahl should have been born in time to hang out with the Pre-Raphaelites. One can easily imagine someone like Dante Gabriel Rosetti or Edward Burne-Jones or maybe some other or all of them falling in love with her, writing some lovely poems about her, and immortalizing her bloodless sensuality and perfect features in their paintings. Maybe she could have prevented Rosetti from dying depressed and half-insane at a relatively young age. Instead, perhaps they could have gotten married and lived a comfortable life together, one reminiscent of the decades of happy smugness Wordsworth settled into. Dying well into their respective old ages, theirs would now be seen as one of the great romances of history by boring romantics who swoon over that sort of thing.

Instead, we get albums like this.

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