Sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Mental illness. Psychopathy. Addiction. Depression. Death.
It is tempting to joke that these are a few of the singer-songwriter Lisa Germano’s favorite things, and it is easy to imagine her embedding that joke in one of her songs. Germano has never tended toward the lighter side of life. Mixed feelings and conflicting perspectives have been the subjects of even her stabs at humor.
Consider these lines worthy of that notorious modernist jokester Samuel Beckett:
“Mom and Dad
Are like my head
I won’t listen to them
Until they’re dead
Or I’m dead
Give it up
Give it up
Ain’t life fun?”
These meditations and mediations may be confessions that appear in the title track of Germano’s second album, the ironically titled Happiness, released by Capitol Records in 1993. This track reappeared on her third album, the ultra-ironically titled Happiness, released by 4AD in 1994.
Few artists have put out two recordings with the same title on two labels within a year of each other. The story behind the two versions of Happiness reflects Germano’s precarious position in a business forever conflicted about artistry versus commerce. Appropriately, then, the story begins with Germano’s introduction to the public as a member of John Mellencamp’s band.
Happiness (Capitol Records, 1993)
Older people or younger pop-rock trainspotters might recall that Mellencamp was first introduced to the public, in 1976, under the stage name Johnny Cougar. The name wasn’t his choice. After scoring some hits, John regained his real surname for 1983’s Uh-Huh. As John Cougar Mellencamp, he released 1987’s The Lonesome Jubilee and 1989’s Big Daddy. On both albums, Germano played violin.
By 1993, for Human Wheels, Mellencamp had sufficient clout to drop the “Cougar” moniker. On that recording, Germano had blossomed as a multi-instrumentalist, credited with violin, mandolin, tin whistle, zither, and backing vocals. Contributing organ, guitar, harmonica, and synthesizer was the album’s producer, Malcolm Burn.
Burn had previously produced sonically stunning recordings for Blue Rodeo, the Neville Brothers, and Chris Whitley. He had played on and engineered sonically stunning recordings for Daniel Lanois. He had engineered Bob Dylan’s sonically impressive Lanois-produced comeback from the mire of the ’80s, Oh Mercy. He also produced and played on Germano’s 1993 version of Happiness, whose musicians also played on many of the records named in these paragraphs.
Two years earlier, Germano self-released her debut album as a singer-songwriter, On the Way Down from the Moon Palace. For her sophomore release, she signed with Capitol, a major label, and was poised for more attention.
Founded in 1942, Capitol has sported a diverse roster across genres. Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, the Beach Boys, and the Band are among Capitol’s artists, but since 1964 the label has been best known for releasing the Beatles’ records in the United States. Across the board, Capitol’s offerings are characterized by aesthetic integrity in the mainstream—non-flashy commerciality, not particularly “alternative” or harshly edgy.
Capitol saw commercial potential in Germano’s music and good looks, and their people called some of her shots. For example, in the ’90s, Germano told at least one interviewer that the cover version of “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” on Happiness was the company’s idea, not hers.
The song’s writer, Lee Hazlewood, produced the 1965 hit by Nancy Sinatra, a version that has never been bettered. Germano and Burn give the music an off-kilter go with a chugging rhythm, garbage-can drums, and what the CD credits call “pots and pans throwing and having a fun temper tantrum”, but Germano’s vocal bespeaks her halfheartedness. She applies the melody to the lyrics but doesn’t seem to address anyone. Even the drawled “man” she adds to the end of some lines, as in the ad-libbed “They’re gonna walk, man”, lacks conviction. The result exemplifies how not to sell a song. Did Capitol think this version would attract attention, get radio play, and shift units?
Bear in mind that no amount of window dressing was going to turn Germano into a new Nancy Sinatra or a pop star on the order of Sheryl Crow or Jewel (though she has worked with the latter two). These days, maybe it would happen—think of Billie Eilish and her disturbing videos. At that time, no such transformation could have occurred if Germano remained true to her grittiness and her penchant for turning over rocks to stare at the creepy crawlies below. At least the executives didn’t insist that “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” open Happiness. Instead, that track appears toward the end, and the CD begins with a sequence of strong originals.
Track 1, “Around the World”, ushers us into the recording’s sound world. Listener-friendly atmospherics—nonthreatening wisps of sound, as opposed to scary sound effects—intertwine with airy guitars, gliding and pinging bass, and processed percussion. Producer Burn is bringing the kind of attention to shimmering details that, as a contributing engineer, he brought to Lanois’ recordings and that Lanois, as a producer, brought to recordings by Dylan, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, U2.
The next track, “You Make Me Wanto [sic] Wear Dresses”, foregrounds Germano’s fiddle and involves more-organic instrumentation. It seems funny to say this, given subsequent developments in Germano’s music, but “Dresses” here sounds like borderline Americana, with echoes of Mellencamp and celebrations of “wide, wide open spaces”. Those spaces do not seem strictly autobiographical—they appear to be both personal and public.
Happiness‘ (1993) title track rides in on a sinister electronic undertow, with picked strings that build into Yoko Ono‒like trills. Indeed, Ono may be an influence here, as Germano delivers seemingly ironically self-aware self-lacerations. For example: “Self-indulgence / Inconsiderate bitch”. Once you’ve heard Germano repeat the phrase “inconsiderate bitch” as though it’s some sweet nothing whispered in your ear, you can’t unhear it.
You may sense a theme developing with the next song, “Bad Attitude”. Burn, Lanois, Eno, and U2 might have concocted the drifting atmospherics with mildly martial drumming of this track, but they never would have written such multilayered lacerations as “You wish you were pretty / But you’re not / Ha ha ha” or “A smoke or a drink makes the laughing part easier / But then you end up with another addiction”.
If you sample the one-two punch of “Happiness” and “Bad Attitude” and feel indifferent, Germano’s music may not be for you. Or maybe, just maybe, try the next song, “Sycophant”, which brings together the sonic approaches of those tracks. Experimentation guides the quasi-tribal drumming and Germano’s chanting, or intoning, of word pictures: “sycophant … political … beautiful … I don’t trust you”, and so on. In a sense, Germano didn’t need to record “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” because in “Sycophant”, she had written her version of the same sentiment. Her presentation is not just stripped to the bone but broken into bone fragments.
The instrumental “Miamo-Tutti” signals a break between the albums’ parts 1 and 2, though they’re not labeled as such. If Capitol had released Happiness as an LP, this track would close the first side.
Side 2, so to speak, begins with “Energy”, whose strummed guitar signals more of the almost-Americana of “You Make Me Wanto Wear Dresses”. Amazingly, Capitol signed off on this version instead of insisting that the song’s hooks become more overt. It’s easy to conjure a 21st-century dance remix turning this one into YouTube-ready retro-glam with booming drums and synthesizer washes. Instead, the recording suggests today’s lo-if bedroom pop, as the singer audibly strives for her lover’s energy.
Even more stripped down is the almost purely acoustic folk-pop song “Cowboy”. An amusing hint of strings blows through like a dusty wind. “Puppet” sounds like the same song but harsher, less melodic, and rocked up through loud electric guitars and the kind of rhythm section often employed by low-budget ’60s garage bands. Next up, fittingly, is “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'”, anchoring the collection in recognizable pop-rock. All’s well, folks—nothing to worry about.
After “Breathe across Texas”, a beautiful, string-focused instrumental, “Everyone’s Victim” revisits the electronic rock of “Sycophant” and “Puppet”. A fitting amount of crunch lies behind Germano’s declaration of being universally abused. If recording music were always as much fun as this track suggests, every sensible person would want to do it; but not every sensible person would explore this emotional territory. Germano sounds far more comfortable in the role of everyone’s victim (“my thoughts are cracking … powerless feeling”) than claiming her boots will be walking all over anyone.
The last track, “The Darkest Night of All”, ushers us out with more atmospherics as Germano again explores mixed feelings and conflicting perspectives. Swap in a Dylan vocal and this secular prayer could be on Oh Mercy. The final lines may offer a twist on Beckett’s famous formulation “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”:
“I can go on
I can deny
This stuff it hurts
Always it will
Now I can ask
Now I can say
The things I need to
You’ve gone away
That resolution doesn’t constitute a happy ending, but its acceptance of loss as opening a route to expression offers a glimmer of hope amidst the painful psychosociological analyses offered throughout Happiness. None of which should have suggested the album had sales potential. Capitol crossed its fingers, held its breath, and waited to see what would happen. Or since it did next to nothing, nothing happened, and Germano found herself free from her contract.
Happiness (4AD, 1994)
Then an unusual thing happened. Within a year, Germano brought Happiness—or at least the makings of it—to the independent label 4AD, best known for alternative rock, postpunk, goth, and dream pop. Started in 1980 and now part of the Beggars Group (an outgrowth of the label Beggars Banquet), 4AD releases memorable and influential recordings by, among many others, Bauhaus, Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, Pixies, TV on the Radio, St. Vincent, The National, and Deerhunter.
Whereas Capitol tried to sit Germano on a fence between Americana and alternative—presenting her as a girl next door with a sharp edge and sadomasochistic leanings—4AD dismantled the fence. To announce this new artist, the label’s cofounder Ivo Watts-Russell, leader of the goth/dream pop collective This Mortal Coil, and the engineer John Fryer remixed four tracks from Happiness—the title song, “Energy”, “Puppet”, and “Sycophant”—and Burn remixed “You Make Me Wanto Wear Dresses” as “(Late Night) Dresses”. The results were released in January 1994 as an EP CD, Inconsiderate Bitch. Elevating a phrase otherwise left to the listener’s detection, this title foregrounded Germano’s difficulty and uninterest in pleasing. The remixed songs translated those qualities into music, plucking out the Capitol CD’s standouts but reconfiguring their hooks. Take that, major label! Germano is one of us.
Three months later, 4AD released its version of Happiness. At one point, that version was coupled on an album with Inconsiderate Bitch. With or without the EP’s remixes, the 1994 Happiness record feels like such a 4AD version that it’s hard to imagine these recordings as a Capitol release. Likewise, it’s hard to imagine 4AD’s signing off on the “poppier” or at least brighter presentations.
Burn remains the producer of Happiness, but Watts-Russell is credited with “resurrect[ing]” two songs “from the dead”. Germano’s liner notes thank “all the people at capitol records who suddenly aren’t there anymore … ain’t life fun?” Fascinatingly, given how much influence mastering can have on the sound of recorded music, the same mastering engineer, Greg Calbi, handled both versions. In contrast to these two visions of one recording with variations, we see the dichotomies of major label versus indie label, mainstream versus the alternative. Some of the same people can use some of the same materials to achieve strikingly different results: effects with an affect.
While the artwork of the Capitol version of Happiness hardly presents Germano as a bombshell, it features photos of her in various outfits and locations. The 4AD artwork, typical for that label, goes gauzily abstract, omitting photos of Germano, distorting cryptically sinister images of dolls and masks and such, establishing Germano’s quasi-goth bona fides.
The order of the songs also changes. The instrumental “Miamo-Tutti” no longer divides the proceedings into halves but instead becomes a transition between songs, one in a series of transitions: fades in and fades out from silence to grinding sound and back to silence or something like it. In place of the original record’s unannounced but audible two-part structure comes a flow of textures that render discrete “songness” secondary to motif variations.
With ear-catching songs no longer the priority, the opening sequence changes. The original opener, “Around the World”, becomes track nine, no longer announcing the sonic terms, laying out the palette, but instead providing another transition. The new opener becomes “Bad Attitude” (“You wish you were pretty / But you’re not / Ha ha ha”), which gains an extended, reverb-laden introduction and starts things far less ingratiatingly. An amorphous original, “Destroy the Flower”, becomes track two, essentially serving as connective tissue between “Bad Attitude” and “Puppet”, which gains a noisy coda. Another amorphous new song, “The Earth”, joins the mix. “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'” and the instrumental “Breathe across Texas” disappear. The only track that remains in place is the closing statement, “The Darkest Night of All”.
Dynamics and emphases change through juxtaposition. A close listener could probably spend an unhealthy amount of time noting these and other sonic alterations. Vocals become muted, smoothed out, now on a level with instruments or buried under instead of atop them. The music glistens less in the 1994 version of Happiness, it bangs less sharply and rasps more. The sporadic rock impact decreases. “Energy”, stripped of its drums, ends up sounding more like an early Velvet Underground drone than an incipient pop song. Its guitars lead into that of “Cowboy”, which leads into that of “Happiness”, whose violin licks and plucked strings become subsumed by murk.
The most striking change between these two versions of Happiness is heard in “You Make Me Wanto Wear Dresses”, which is now titled “The Dresses Song” and opens with an industrial noise like a giant vacuum sucking up the atmosphere. In place of the original’s organic instrumentation—fiddle, strummed guitar, and drums—a burbling electronic pattern and scattered ambient sounds disconcertingly undergird Germano’s vocal. She now sounds fragile, tranquilized, not the slightest bit exuberant, as though being forced to sing the song, which presumably she once liked.
We can only guess what would lead an artist to rework a song so radically.
In place of the original’s Americana, “The Dresses Song” provides a glimpse into a machine somewhere in industrial Europe, where an evocation of “wide, wide open spaces” seems ironic at best. Just as Germano doesn’t seem to be addressing any particular person or “man” in “These Boots Were Made for Walkin'”, here she sounds possibly afraid of the idea of wide open spaces. Wearing dresses seems as out of the question as getting out of this insular headspace. Coming next and last, “The Darkest Night of All” delivers even less hope in its small breakthrough with 4AD than in the Capitol incarnation of Happiness.
The record’s revision may be neither better nor worse, just different, a matter of taste. Do you like your Germano with a dash of commerciality or a dose of overt aesthetics bordering on gloomy pall? You can play one, then the other, and have separate experiences.
Lisa Germano Since ‘Happiness’
Germano remained with 4AD for four years and four recordings. Her album Geek the Girl, also released in 1994, doubled down on the qualities that differentiated the 1994 version of Happiness from the 1993 version. Textures flow through the songs, and the lyrics relentlessly explore trauma, including rape, and illness, including the song “Cancer of Everything”. By that point, Germano had built her brand.
After 4AD, she spent three years at an even more independent label, Young God. Its owner and operator, Michael Gira, is best known as the mastermind behind the erstwhile New York City noise-rock band Swans, whose work explored cultural fringes and physical, emotional, and psychological brutality. As a solo artist, Gira also recorded a kind of no-nonsense American gothic folk-country-rock album. Gira’s embrace of Germano’s music made perfect sense. Yet, it boggled the mind in light of her time with Mellencamp, appearances with mainstream figures such as the Indigo Girls and David Bowie, and her brief association with Capitol.
Like so many of her contemporaries, Germano has come full circle. After passing through the self-release realm, traveling through the major-label inferno, then emerging through layers of independence, she has returned to the self-release realm. That realm represents a kind of limbo and an open plain of unfettered expression.