While writing her third album Geek the Girl, Mishawaka, Indiana native multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Lisa Germano did not set out to make a political record, let alone an avowedly feminist one. Yet, when it was released in October 1994, only six months after 4AD had “rescued” Germano from an unhappy relationship with Capitol and issued a revamped version of her sophomore Happiness, Geek the Girl presented itself as a bold investigation of a woman’s journey through self-acceptance and some of the systemic issues fuelling her personal struggles.
Hi, this is the story of geek the girl, a girl who is confused about how to be cool and sexual in the world but finds out she isn’t cool and gets taken advantage of sexually a lot, gets kind of sick and enjoys giving up but in the end tries to believe in dreams and still hopes of loving a man that he might save her from her shit life… ha ha what a geek!Geek the Girl – liner notes
Reading this loosely conceptual synopsis, featured in the liner notes, those familiar with Germano’s work would have recognized the blend of gut-wrenching storytelling and wry existentialism which made Happiness, more so than her self-released debut, On the Way Down from the Moon Palace (1991), the peculiar first chapter of her artistic reinvention. Amidst thundering guitars, the piercing sound of her signature violin, and hazy intermissions, on Happiness Germano left her long-standing reputation as the “John Mellencamp session musician” behind to experiment with the pop-rock format and dissect the perils of insecurity and depression in her lyrics.
Yet, nothing could have prepared listeners for the vertiginous depths of Geek the Girl, a record which took the premises of Happiness into a murkier, at times even scarier territory. As her bonafide first album of entirely new material for 4AD, Geek the Girl reflected Germano’s newfound artistic freedom. Although the label had high hopes for a breakthrough, having co-founder Ivo-Watts Russell’s unconditional support meant Germano could accomplish her vision with little interference. “You just go with what’s coming out of your psyche rather than writing music to sell”, Germano says in Martin Aston’s book Facing the Other Way. “It definitely wasn’t the ‘pop’ record 4AD was looking for. Maybe ‘pop’ isn’t the right word, but they felt I had the ability to make more of the left-field hit record like Dead Can Dance or the Breeders”.
A Last Splash it was not. Although mixing and drumming on four of the 12 songs were completed at a later stage with help from Malcolm Burn and Kenny Aronoff, the nebulous production on Geek the Girl captured the atmosphere of its solitary conception at Germano’s home, mirroring the feeling of being “stuck” and the theme of isolation underlying the record. “I’ve never been cool enough in any situation,” Germano told Rolling Stone.
“I’m not enough of a druggie to be with the druggies, I’m not enough of a cheerleader to be with the cheerleaders. And that’s what Geek the Girl is all about: You’re a geek because you sleep with someone ‘cause you’re too scared to leave; you’re a geek because you have dreams of a relationship that will probably never happen. And yet you’d like to believe that maybe your very geekness, your weirdness, what makes you strange—might also be your gift.”
Although Germano did not shy away from offering autobiographical clues to interpret the new songs, the album itself, right from the start, lures listeners into an ambiguously semi-fictional universe. It opens with a hissy recording of a fast-paced Sicilian folk tune, which the credits name as “La Frascilita”. A bit low in the mix and relegated to the left channel, it plays for 50 seconds, suggesting a theatrical opening.
It returns twice on the record, right after “…A Psychopath”, its terrifying centerpiece narrating Geek’s fear of her stalker, and as a rejoinder between the last two tracks “…Of Love snd Colors” and “Stars”, its hopeful coda. Although Germano talked about the little tune as an intermission meant to bring “comic relief” to the most “serious” parts of the record, its festiveness ends up sounding rather ominous when juxtaposed to the pitch-black tones of the record.
This happens when the high notes of the traditional flute fiscalettu give way to the leaden guitars of the opening song “My Secret Reason”, Geek’s manifesto of uncertainty. Here Germano’s breathy mezzo-soprano narrates Geek’s struggle to make sense of human behavior, from climate change to religion and politics, resulting in the simplest yet most genuine of realizations: “If no one’s right and no one’s wrong/ In between this we are learning much about evil, it’s just evil”.
In the song, partly inspired by the same polarising media coverage of the Gulf War which fuelled French philosopher Baudrillard’s radical skepticism of the “truth” of international politics, Germano sets the tone for Geek’s journey throughout the album. While casting doubt on the validity of received ideas on cool, love, and success, Geek sees (her) pain and fear as valid sources of knowledge.
In the iridescent ditty “Trouble”, driven by gentle sweeps of accordion and a faded piano, the protagonist wishes she could switch places with a spider to do away with her feelings of insecurity, triggered by her struggles to keep a relationship afloat. The contrast between the levity of the arrangement and the brutal honesty of her confession is made all the more disarming by the weight of her final assessment: “And as I act I hate myself”.
The title track uses the same uncanny principle, contrasting ethereal synthesizers and caressing guitars with Germano’s deadpan delivery. Here Geek offers a phenomenological reading of her own “uncool” (“Angry and dumb/ Keepin’ the cool from coming out, yeah”) as well as a scathing critique of peer pressure and the internalized fear of being left out (“Wrong move and you’re not too cool”).