The Cut-Out Bin #1: Jane Siberry, The Speckless Sky (1985)
This Canadian songwriter epitomized quirkiness in the mid-1980s, garnering her a few hits in her homeland and total obscurity abroad.
Few Canadian artists, even the best ones, have ever done much to counter American perceptions of their country as a cold, rural, simple place with nice scenery. In songs such as Neil Young's "Helpless" and Joni Mitchell's "River", Canada is the unspoiled Eden frozen in time, where a tormented soul burned out by the high-stakes pop life in America could get some much-needed R 'n' R. When Mitchell sings "But it don't snow here / It stays pretty green / I'm going to make a lot of money / Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene / Oh I wish I had a river / I could skate away on", it doesn't take Dudley Do-Right to figure out which country has the snow and the river, and which one the money and the crazy scene.
In the course of an almost 25-year career, Jane Siberry (rhymes with slippery) has written her share of songs celebrating the Canadian backwoods, but her best work has always reflected the tension between the rural myth and the realities of contemporary Canada, which, like America, is predominantly urban and suburban. In a way that can strike the listener as either cloying or charming, she brings a doe-eyed innocence and playfully bizarre sense of observation to bear on city life.
Siberry's city is Toronto, which, when The Speckless Sky was released in 1985, had begun to emerge as Canada's answer to New York. In the 40 years between World War II and that year, Toronto had shed its status as the urban equivalent of Wonder Bread and become a diverse center of art and commerce. (The pace of change has hardly lessened since: By some estimates, Toronto is now North America's fifth-largest city, with more than 100 languages spoken on its streets.) The young Jane could not help but be acutely aware of the business end of this transformation, as her father was a big shot with Merrill Lynch Canada.
Her first two albums, Jane Siberry and No Borders Here, showed promise, but potentially strong songs such as "You Don't Need" and "The Strange Well" were sabotaged by timid production. Still, Borders produced a minor Canadian hit with the loopy "Mimi on the Beach", which seems to have given Siberry the confidence to fully abandon her folky roots in favor of a more ambitious, synth-heavy production approach. On The Speckless Sky, the melodies come from behind every corner: One minute a bass line will duet with a soaring vocal, in the next, the listener is treated to a sampled horn section harmonizing with very 1980s-sounding processed guitar.
The album opens with the rousing "One More Colour", one of the happiest songs Siberry has written, although lyrics like "Speak a little softer / work a little harder / shoot less with more care / sing a little sweeter / and love a little longer / and soon you will be there" seem to betray the inner struggle between Jane the poetess and Jane the daughter of a Merrill Lynch executive. Throughout the album, there is a tendency for good songs to get sidetracked by lyrics that may have looked game in the notebook but wilt when forced to keep pace with the multilayered clamor. For example, the protagonist of "Seven Steps to the Wall" is apparently being persecuted for doing something artistic; unfortunately, the listener may feel equally mistreated after being blindsided by a lyric like "I love dust."
Siberry's weakness for nonsensical wordplay haunts almost the entire album, but there is enough going on musically to sustain the momentum generated by "One More Colour". Such songs as "The Very Large Hat" and "Map of the World (Part II)" capture the opening track's ebullience while following even windier paths, courtesy of multiple bridges and instrumental breaks. The effect can be jarring, and the newcomer will be forgiven for at times thinking the CD has skipped. But Siberry's alto shimmers throughout, like a seagull floating above the murky waters of Lake Ontario.
On the album's most affecting track, "The Empty City", Siberry sets her word blender to low, allowing the song's more direct lyrics to heighten the tension between her emotive, folky vocal style and the album's mid-1980s production sheen. This contrast is perfectly echoed by her observation of the fragility of life and love amidst the imposing concrete-and-steel permanence of Toronto's postmodern skyline:
the marble in the lobby
the silent corridors
is this the new church
out of which... no one pours
don't know why it moves me
maybe I'm going to die soon
a secret known only to
known only to not even me
I want to live forever
I fear maybe you don't
I fear that I will lose you
leave me here to carry on alone
The Speckless Sky went gold in Canada, a level of commercial success Siberry would not top until 1993's When I Was a Boy. Over time, her quirky art-rock gave way to experiments with jazz (1995's Maria), Christmas music (1997's Child) and almost everything in between, but in the States, this studied eclecticism has earned her something closer to cut-out bin ubiquity than mainstream success.
A personal story serves to illustrate why American success may have slipped her grasp, and why she may not care. In 1990, I saw Siberry play to a capacity crowd at the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia, where she introduced an unreleased song with "Calling All Angels." As performed that night, the tune was a breathy, plaintive, overtly sexual come-on to a man in a bar. I'm sure many in that hushed audience felt she had a potential hit on her hands. But Jane had other ideas. By the time the song appeared on the Until the End of the World soundtrack, the sexiness was gone, replaced by new-agey mumbo-jumbo. Instead of pleading with the angels to give her the courage to approach some stud, Siberry now remarked upon their propensity to "gaze upon the sunset / with such love and intensity." Yuck. So much for the hit single.
Oddly enough, this later version was recorded as a duet with k.d. lang (then at the short-lived height of her popularity), who, like Siberry, is a lesbian. Had the lyrics I heard that night in Philadelphia simply had its pronouns reworked to suit a lesbian context (instead of a god-awful Wim Wenders movie), the tune might at least have caused a bit of a stir -- even if American homophobia still likely would have kept it from being a huge hit. But it was not to be. At the next Siberry concert I attended, a half-empty house warily greeted a set which comprised mostly jazzy tunes from "Maria." Any visions of U.S. success were long gone. Whether a career trajectory that led straight to the discount rack says more about Jane Siberry's weirdness or more about the bland tastes of the American music-buying public, I'm still not sure. But the fact that it took suck-ass fraudsters Train to spin Siberry's catchy phrase "Calling All Angels" into a hit song probably tells us all we need to know.