Maggie Connell's The Luxury of Sadness is an album to behold. It is a strange little work, one that doesn't freely lend itself to easy categorization or listening, for that matter. Not that the album is hard to listen to -- in fact, The Luxury of Sadness is quite a fascinating listen. It's just that the work exists in a strange little bubble of its own nature. It's not rock, and it's not necessarily pop. It isn't of the folk variety, and while there is a wild streak of personal, and at times, humorous, angst running through the 10 songs here, Maggie Connell isn't really This Year's Punk, either.
This album might be most easily described as a musical piece of performance art. Now, before you go hiding in the corners from that description, just know that Maggie Connell's music is infinitely listenable and fascinating. This isn't some freaked-out poet spewing nonsensical bile while sounds of noisy traffic jams and pseudo-classical strings are played behind her. The Luxury of Sadness is a small, fragile, yet tough work of art that has plenty of barbed wire and thorns laced within its sometimes delicate melodies.
Connell plays all the instruments here, and her ear for spatial arrangements is her greatest gift. Rather than create songs that have a continuous buzz or sound in the background, Maggie instead lets her work breathe and grow naturally. She uses the silence within the spaces between her notes as an extra instrument, and this is no easy task in itself. To create part of an overall important mood with just the quiet that exists all around us when we stop ourselves to bother to tune out the world is the ingredient that makes Connell's work so original, so thought provoking.
Not even the opening track "La La La" prepares the listener for the experience of listening to this entire album. With jagged guitar chords, and pounding piano, Connell issues thoughts such as "I coulda been a dentist / I coulda been a whore / I could've re-parented my inner child, but that would be a bore," before settling into the child-like chorus that is the title of the song. Strange snips of an occasional string section punctuate each of Connell's gobbed-out statements as if to make the point that this is serious. And it is serious, but one can't help but notice Maggie laughing viciously through her teeth at the same time.
So if it isn't obvious by now, The Luxury of Sadness is a most apt title for this album. But it's not one of those "angry" albums that distances itself from its audience. Connell wraps herself around the listener with her voice that most resembles a mix of Marlo Thomas, Kirsty MacColl, and Kate Bush, and her music that plays upon the fanciful sounds of Tin Pan Alley pop, basic guttural rock by design, and classical motifs. Indeed, it is the punctuated Latin-tinged percussive hand claps in "Diagram of Rage" that turn the song from a standard exposition on anger into something a bit more stately and dream-like.
And it may take a listen or two to fully appreciate Connell's snarling delivery here, but hearing her beautiful vocal harmonies that paint the backdrop for the hypnotic "I Slip on Rainbows", complete with all the instantly-pleasing hooks one might expect from a song with that title, will probably be enough of a sweet sucker punch for those not sure if they can "get into" Connell's phrasing. Besides, the fitful "Alligator's Dream" sounds as if Maggie could best They Might Be Giants at their old, quirky great selves that they have abandoned more and more as time has gone on.
The only real clinker on the album is "I Eat Children". Unfortunately for Connell, something this obviously "grotesque" sticks out like a sore thumb amidst an album of beautiful blemishes. By this time, something of this nature has already been bested by its prototype, A Modest Proposal, and the Alice Cooper classic, "I Love The Dead". Connell's intentions with the tune are fine, but she outdoes the coy shock value of the song in the nine other tracks here.
One of those is the stunning "I Wish I Was Alice". With an eerie echoed piano, Connell spells out her desires explicitly. "I wish I was Alice, I wish I was Jane / I wish I was anyone else / I wish I was somebody else so I could feel nothing again". More than any other song here, this one probably embraces loneliness and wanting and pain the best. Before the song closes, Maggie politely exclaims, "I wish you were dead". The whole thing has a great Elton John, circa Honky Chateau feel to it.
So, to put it bluntly, Maggie Connell and The Luxury of Sadness is exquisite heartache and pain at its prettiest, at its most captivating. Connell has a great way with words, music, and emotion that is sorely missing from more popular bleeding types such as Sarah Maclachlan. Spending the time to takes to listen to this album and exorcising personal demons along with Maggie Connell to buffer and share the angst is downright refreshing. This one's a cool killer.