Lisa Germano's new album is her most austere, unforgiving work, but it's just about worth the effort.
There has always been a kind of ornate misery to Lisa Germano's music. She is best known for her '90s albums for dream-pop label 4AD, which had a rare combination of intricate beauty and unflinching challenge, a music box of nightmares.
Even in their darkest moments, though, albums like Geek the Girl and Slide never felt hermetic. Germano may have been grappling with demons throughout her career, but she has always been a magnificent songwriter, with the ability to write pop songs as catchy, funny or bittersweet as "Way Below the Radio", "Cancer of Everything" or "Crash".
Two of those songs came from 1998's Slide, her most upbeat and accessible album and her last for a major label. Since then Germano has been determinedly stripping back her sound from its already minimalist starting point, burrowing ever deeper into her own fragile world on a series of albums released on independent labels. Increasingly she has sounded like she is making music more for herself than anyone else.
Lisa Germano's latest album, No Elephants might represent the high-water mark for that approach. It's an almost crushingly sparse, hushed album, even by her recent standards. Throughout the album, Germano's voice barely rises above a low, strained murmur. The musical arrangements of mostly piano, organ and violin sound like they are being played softly in another room, perhaps one in a large, dusty old wooden house in the country filled with abandoned rooms, the furniture covered in sheets and dust.
The album opens with the sound of seabirds calling. Before long a piano starts playing softly. At length, Germano's own tremulous, rasping falsetto appears, singing that she needs a ruminant's four stomachs to swallow the problems of the world. "Throw up / start over", she suggests.
The title track feels eerily empty for most of its length, just Germano sighing softly over a spartan, echo-y minor key piano piece, with more birds chirping and what sounds like a strong wind blowing through trees outside in the background. It sounds like a rough demo at first. But gradually more and more background sounds are added into the mix, starting with a heavy, almost subliminal bass note that flickers in and out. As the song draws to an end, the piano itself slowly disappears into a vortex of detailed little snatches of keyboard, violin, whistles, cell-phone buzz and various other sound fragments. Germano's vocals change their place in the mix too, sometimes suddenly front and centre, then fading back into the next room. The overall effect of all this subdued clamour is disquieting, especially combined with Germano's abstract, disenchanted lyrics: "We're going away / No place to play / Took my space".
Several tracks pull similar tricks to "No Elephants". "Haunted" is sung in a kind of high, strained whisper, the music so tentative it seems barely there. "'Fraidy cat, 'fraidy cat / 'Fraid of being frightened" - it's a desperate, claustrophobic song about disappearance and getting home, built on a fragile, stop-start little piano melody which gets swallowed whole by a short burst of bass and violins just as the song ends. On "A Feast", the piano is interrupted by little bursts of chimes, violins swell and fade as Germano repeats "How in the world? / How in the world?". On other tracks little snippets of animal noises or bass (from Sebastian Steinberg, once of Soul Coughing) or cellphone buzz might suddenly appear apparently at random, then sink without trace. Many tracks feel skeletal, almost half-formed.
A couple of songs briefly threaten to spark into something more dynamic. "Apathy and the Devil" in particular has a skittering beat and an enjoyable little piano loop that on another album might have been turned into a woozy, soaring pop song. Here though, as with the rest of the album, anything that might resemble a hook is quickly snuffed out.
Germano's lyrics on No Elephants are fragmentary, obtuse to the point of being almost impenetrable. There is, though, an overriding concern, if not exactly a 'message', pervading throughout No Elephants. It's an album that expresses an increasing despair on the world around it, both on a personal and global level. Animals keep appearing and disappearing throughout the album, both in the lyrics and in sound. "Diamonds" could be read as being at least partly about the horrors of the diamond trade, though as ever with Germano it's more complicated than that.
But just as the music is often unresolved, the lyrics seem designed more to express unarticulated feelings than convey any kind of clear sentiment. Some songs, like "Ruminant", dissolve into recitations of seemingly unrelated words: "Hogwash / Bulldozer / Way out of order / Order / Another" is followed by "Graceful / Sonata / A sugary cover / Brainwashed / Hogwash / Come on". You have a sense of a logic at work, but it's an internal logic that doesn't welcome outsiders too gladly.
The benefit of all the empty spaces on No Elephants is that they bring out the subtleties in the music, and the album rewards close listening for those with the patience for it. But No Elephants is also a trying listen, its effect wavering disconcertingly between deeply intimate and uncomfortably oppressive. It's likely that this is deliberate, a reflection Germano's own apparent inner disquiet.
But admirable as the craft on display on No Elephants may be, as a listening experience the album is often hard to enjoy. It also has the feeling of an ending, or a creative cul de sac; this album surely represents the apotheosis of this austere, insular approach. Still, while No Elephants may not be the best introduction to her work, and it may not be clear where she goes from here, Germano remains an interesting, challenging artist. It's just to be hoped that her next steps are richer and more fully realised than this fascinating, frustrating album.