Lisa Germano doesn’t owe us anything. Already, she’s graced us with some of the loveliest music to fall into the “underground” label, her all-but-trademarked breathy vocal style and extreme musical serenity never less than gorgeous. Her last album, Lullaby for Liquid Pig, is one of the most beautiful odes to addiction (and the complications that go with that addiction) that has ever been written, flitting in and out of disparate musical styles while never quite losing the sense of utter stillness that she has, of late, become known for. Her willingness to try different styles of percussion, instrumentation, and methods of melodic development kept an album that easily could have been construed as dull from ever even approaching such a label.
No such luck with In the Maybe World.
I will grant her this—I don’t know that Ms. Germano will ever again write a poor lyric. Whether literal or metaphorical, terrestrial or celestial, her words don’t smack you upside the head so much as they drip into your consciousness, a slowly leaking faucet that you never want to fix. Her topic this time is death, whether it be a literal, physical death or something a bit more abstract, like the “death” at the end of a relationship. This latter sort of death forms the basis of perhaps the greatest song on the album, the brutally honest “Red Thread”. A beautiful subtlety in the mix allows Germano to play out both parties in the end of the relationship in question, starting with civil discussion that devolves into profanity-laced back-and-forth, eventually finishing on “I love you / I love you, too”, sung not in the spirit of reconciliation so much as resignation. It’s the album’s standout, a devastating highlight that serves as the album’s primary raison d’être.
Other highlights include the wide-eyed wonder and fatalistic longing of “Into Oblivion” (“Somewhere, someone’s freezing / Somewhere I saw blue eyes believing / But all along, I need to go into obvlivion / Oblivion, I love you / Maybe it’s time we said goodbye”) and the Jeff Buckley tribute “Except for the Ghosts” (“Except for the ghosts / Except for the memories / Accepting the waves / And waving goodbye”). It’s no coincidence, most likely, that many of the most poignant lyrics do end with the word “goodbye”.
The problem is, it’s easy to lose the lyrics when the music gives us no reason to listen to them. The one word that keeps coming to mind when trying to describe In the Maybe World is “soupy”, all opaque and slippery and grounded in not much of anything. It’s as if the sustain pedal is down on every instrument, all reverb and atmosphere creating something that does well enough for a “mood”, I suppose, but the “mood” is always the same. Regardless of what the lyrics might be in these songs, every song is a slow dirge, sometimes with percussion but usually not, and often with very, very repetitive vocal lines from Germano herself. Perhaps she is using her medium simply as a way to get her words out, but what starts out sounding like a genuine stab at intimacy starts to feel contrived by the end, when all of the quiet instruments and breathy, softly-sung vocals wear and grate like so much sandpaper. Songs like “A Seed” and “Wire” just sort of pass without presenting a single interesting musical idea, and granted, they’re both over in under two minutes, but they both feel longer than that, as they are simply quiet waits for the songs that follow.
In fact, most of the album feels like a wait—we wait for something to happen, for something to make us care, to cause a shiver in the skin or a tingle in the spine. But for a few moments in “Red Thread”, that something never arrives.
It’s very likely that In the Maybe World was conceived for just that effect, an attempt at subtlety, portraying a death that comes slowly and gradually (and, by implication, painfully) rather than suddenly. Whether it comes slowly or quickly, however, an album about death should make us feel something, whether that something be shamed relief, acute sorrow or something in between. The “something” that I should be feeling as Germano meditates on the various manifestations of death never arrives, leaving us in a lucid coma, with neither the satisfaction of an enlightening awakening, nor the finality of a last breath.