For someone who comes from LA show biz roots (Didja know her half-brother was in Love?), has worked with the usual LA assortment of pros and studio veterans (especially with Lone Justice, but afterwards, too), and looks as fetching as an El Lay showbiz kid should look (Check out that cover of her solo debut!), Maria McKee has still managed to carve out a singular, sincere (!) corner for herself in the music world. She hasn’t always had much to say, but she’s always been believably sincere saying it.
Despite all the styles she’s flirted with, she’s never gone for sleek and shiny. With Lone Justice, she tinged her pop and rock with country, and not country of the platinum-plated Garth Brooks variety. When she took a liking towards synthesizers, she refrained from pulsing techno or dance pop and, instead, veered towards the hushed textures of My Bloody Valentine. And she hasn’t whored her good looks into scantily clad glamour shots, either (Sigh). Sure, she looks especially good on her debut cover or on the back cover of this disc, but those are portraits that show only her face: her image, like a woman painted by DaVinci, has always been beautifully fetching, not va-va-voom fetching.
And that visual image has suited her sonic image just fine. She sings love songs (well and sexily, I might add), just not love songs about feeling the earth move. Even on the open seduction of “I’m Gonna Soothe You”, she coos and tempts and instructs, going through all the foreplay before the act itself. She knows what’s coming, you know what’s coming, she knows you know, and she leaves it at that. Within the space of her songs, there’s always the conscious self that stands in observation and judgment of the events described. No matter the mood or situation, the earth is still enough for some thinking to be going on. For McKee, that extra thought creates sadness in what could have otherwise been a bestial good time. Not that it isn’t still a good time, just a different sort of good time.
To that end, she covers bittersweet love from every angle, from before (“I’m Gonna Soothe You”) to during (“My Lonely Sad Eyes”) to after (“If Love Is a Red Dress (Hang Me in Rags)”), from being a lover with bittersweet feelings (“Breathe”) to loving someone with bittersweet feelings (“I’m Gonna Soothe You” again) to observing other people in bittersweet love (“Life Is Sweet”). At its best, as it is here, her bittersweetness is nearly essential, making this nearly essential as both a quiet romance and post-breakup album.
Before it seem as if I’ve finally given in to the Radiohead aesthetic that gives undue credit for making sadness pretty, I refer the listener to the tenth song.
On that one, “Life Is Sweet” (which segues into “Afterlife”), McKee’s sweet melancholy is at last paired with an acknowledgment of the greater world that goes on regardless of how down in the dumps a lonely individual might be. Despite that, the chorus tells us that “Life is sweet / Bittersweet / And the days keep rolling along”. Yet, after spending the song sending her sympathies and best wishes to an assortment of misfits and encouraging them to take their chances in art, love, and life, she also reminds, “You meet a girl, you fall in love / It doesn’t work out / It won’t be the first time / They don’t make a cure for that”. And then comes the chorus again. Unchanged. Life is still sweet. Bittersweet, of course.
The razor focus of “Life Is Sweet” (and its descriptively richer, less focused cousin, “Panic Breach”) puts the whole album into focus. McKee isn’t just moping for herself. Put as it is towards the end of this (mostly chronological) album, “Life Is Sweet” makes a greater sense of the melancholy that, until then, had been the thread running through all the stylistic experiments. While McKee is never self-pitying, “Life Is Sweet” lends a greater scope to the bittersweetness and melancholy the other songs describe in the first person, positing the worthwhile bittersweetness of the earlier songs into an universal condition that, by its universality, should connect us all into a sympathetic community of fellow travelers to the grave (It’s a nice thought, anyway). “Life Is Sweet” clarifies and expands the prior songs like a final line can shade an entire poem with greater meaning (Similar in kind to “Life Is Sweet” here is how Elizabeth Barrett Browning ends her descriptions of mortal love in “How Do I Love Thee?” with “I shall but love thee better after death”). Regardless of how they were first conceived, this is how the songs work together on this album.
It almost convinces me that McKee had something to say all along. Or, more likely, she’s been going in this direction all along, until vague feelings finally crystallized into a detachment that cast a cold eye on life and on death. I’ve loosely followed her work both in Lone Justice and by herself, but this is the album that’s convinced me that I can’t wait to hear what she comes out with next.