Nellie McKay Get Away From Me

Pop-Rock Not for the Masses: Nellie McKay’s ‘Get Away From Me’ at 20

Nellie McKay is appealing but with an edge, offering hooks but also barbs, looking back at the past and ahead of her time. She could be a pop star in 2024.

Get Away From Me
Nellie McKay
10 February 2004

In 2024, we know what pop is: catchy music made by pop stars, whose biggest names are currently Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. We know what rock is: crunchy music created by rock stars like Metallica and Green Day. What is pop-rock?

Like a lot of hybrids, that genre is more challenging to define. In 2024, it may refer to pop music that rocks (for example, Olivia Rodgrigo’s Guts). Or it may refer to more retro artists (such as the Lemon Twigs), whose recordings and aesthetic self-consciously refer to the classic pop-rock purveyors, from Elvis Presley to the Beatles to Stevie Wonder to Fleetwood Mac to Billy Joel to… Name your favorite figure in the pantheon.

In 2004, an artist emerged who seemed poised to enter that pantheon: Nellie McKay, whose debut was a big deal, or at least presented as one. It was a 60-minute double CD released by the major label Columbia Records/Sony. All the music would have fit on a single disc, which would have been less expensive to manufacture and easier for the listener to manage. The fact that the collection was split into two discs, labeled Side One and Side Two, as though the collection were a very (in fact, impossibly) long single LP, signaled the artist’s importance. The title, Get Away From Me, signposted the artist’s sense of that importance, plus an orneriness that has kept her out of the pop-rock pantheon these past two decades.

Get Away From Me must be the least welcoming title ever applied to a debut album. Well, there was the hardcore-punk debut We’re the Meatmen… And You Suck! (1983). That’s pretty off-putting, but then the indie label Touch & Go issued the record. By contrast, the Sex Pistols, punk rock incarnate when they existed, even though they weren’t on an indie, titled their first album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977). That’s an invitation. McKay’s title didn’t insult like the Meatmen’s, but it didn’t invite like the Sex Pistols. It denied access, its sentiment reinforced by the X her body marked in the CD’s cover photo.

Nellie McKay intended her title to be the antithesis of Come Away With Me, the title of Norah Jones‘ debut CD. Released in 2002, Jones’s collection of pleasant jazz-folk-soul-country-pop had propelled its winsome creator from New York City small-club sensation to hot commercial property and industry player. That CD sold over 27 million copies and earned Jones five Grammy Awards: Best New Artist, Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, Record of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. Her subsequent releases have done very well if not quite hitting those heights.

It’s safe to say that all of Nellie McKay’s releases, from Get Away From Me through 2023’s self-released Hey Guys, Watch This—with stops along the way for a full-length tribute to one of her idols, Doris Day, a collection of 1960s covers, and a collection of jazz standards—together haven’t sold anywhere near 27 million copies. Nor has McKay won a Grammy, though she has won other awards, such as from PETA. You go, girl, as they used to say, unless they still say that, whoever the hell they are.

This is not to say that sales or awards reflect an artist’s or her work’s merit. It’s just that McKay might have gotten her wish with the title of her debut. Not only has a mass audience gotten away from her, but it’s stayed away. 

This might suit her just fine because she doesn’t seem inclined to please the masses. McKay has a big smile and a good sense of humor, but she doesn’t play nice, or rather, sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn’t. Her jokes tend to be wicked, her observations biting, and her judgments final. As a public figure—feminist, liberal or progressive, a vegan animal-rights activist, outspoken politically, not selling obvious sexuality—she can be as unwieldy as a two-CD set. But she follows her own star in terms of recordings, appearances, and performances, including theatrical ones (wherein, in my experience, she tends to steal the show).

That Get Away From Me was intended to make Nellie McKay some kind of pop-rock star, not necessarily a household name but certainly an artist of stature, is indicated by its producer, who was also its engineer: Geoff Emerick. A short list of the albums Emerick engineered might include the Beatles‘ RevolverSgt. PepperAbbey Road and Wings’ Band on the RunVenus and Mars, and London Town. A short list of the albums he produced might include Elvis Costello‘s Imperial Bedroom and All This Useless Beauty.

The stylistic diversity of those records represents a universe in which McKay exists on her own planet. However, liking those records or any of the music Emerick engineered or produced won’t guarantee liking Get Away From Me. If you enjoy at least some mid-to-late Beatles and some early-to-mid Costello, plus maybe some early Fiona Apple and early Rufus Wainwright, you’re at least likely to land happily on Planet McKay.

Side One opens with something like a desire to please, but not excitedly as much as confidently, comfortably, as though a friend were resuming a conversation. Musically, “David” might be one point where the Beatles meet Elvis Costello: light faux-reggae backing, with Nellie McKay’s pretty but conversational vocal complicated by cascading backup lines she overdubbed herself. The lyrics position the narrator as contemplating her career and the “chaos [that] pervades the world outside” while she seeks solace in drink and her “man”, David, who appears to be down the hall but, in this song, at least, doesn’t appear.

Then, in this, the first song of her first album, McKay introduces a political position circa 2004: “Mr. Bushie says / I’m your president / I have lots to say / Hey hey hey / And click goes the remote / There you have my vote / Catchin’ the next boat out of here.”

In 2024, the reference to George W. Bush feels ancient yet not dated—more a harbinger. Even if, back then, you turned away from that Republican in distaste or disgust, you might have trouble recalling just what the problem was. That’s not to downplay, say, the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, just to say that the Republicans of 2024 are so different, more extreme to the point of terrifying. If Nellie McKay ends up on Herr Donald Trump’s radar, he’ll probably brand her a “nasty woman” or worse, and she’ll probably receive that label ecstatically.

“Manhattan Avenue” quiets things down considerably for the kind of heart-on-sleeve lounge jazz that Costello began exploring on “Almost Blue” from Imperial Bedroom. As the second track on Get Away From Me, this homage to the grittiness of New York (“Chipping paint / The ceiling’s spent / Aw ain’t it great / Can’t pay the rent”) positions McKay geographically, paves the way for the stylistic variety to come, and reassures us that we will get breathers between the frenetic numbers.

Speaking of which: “Sari” gets busy with a fast rap rhythm in the verses, then a pure pop chorus, and it all adds up to a playful pun on the title. The singer’s apologizing to those who would judge her behavior and opinions, but really she’s “a savage inside” and “sorry for you”, the judges. “Well now I don’t mean to offend / much”, with a meaningful pause before and emphasis on “much”, speaks volumes.

At the start of “Ding Dong” the singer’s cat has died, and circumstances don’t improve from there. The noise of the title is the doorbell, which announces the arrival of men in white, then in red, then in black, all aiming to solve the person’s existential crisis. Nellie McKay employs a restrained upbeatness, juxtaposing disorder, disorientation, and wide-ranging thoughts with music suggesting it’s a beautiful day. Imagine, say, Paul McCartney’s “Good Day Sunshine” if its lyrics were from John Lennon’s “She Said She Said”: “Maybe this Jack the Ripper lied,” McKay sings, “and you died.”

“Baby Watch Your Back” fascinatingly mashes up Isaac Hayes-style soul, vibraphone-and-horn jazz, and 1960s psychedelia—like Portishead sped up—all played as though making music is a life-or-death matter. Indeed, the speaker turns out to be a stalker who promises to one day catch up with “baby”.

“The Dog Song” then celebrates a fluffier kind of attachment. Amidst a jaunty and jazzy mix of piano-based combo and light strings, the singer is out walking her dog. Like a present-day influencer, she posits this form of companionship as transforming “an archetypal loser” into “no more a failure”.

Cogitation, confusion, and agitation return, however, as “Waiter” finds the singer struggling to get out of a restaurant but meanwhile focused on the missiles her country is firing on a different country. The music ironically plunges into thumping-big-beat disco while offering sonic surprises—swirls, punctuations—without getting cluttered. All of Get Away From Me‘s arrangements are by Nellie McKay, and the musicianship is dazzlingly warm yet sharp, delivering spoonsful of sugar that help the lyrical medicine go down.

McKay clearly wrote these songs during wartime, and at least some of her narrators’ anger and discombobulation reflect the violence happening in her name via her tax dollars. The topicality, in other words, generalizes. Two decades later, the circumstances and names differ, but the anguish remains the same, as politicians, dictators, and other killers make life hell for ordinary citizens. 

The answer, obviously, is domesticity. In “I Wanna Get Married”, Nellie McKay extols the benefits of a quiet life as a devoted wife and mother, returning to lounge jazz honestly but with tongue firmly in cheek lyrically: “That’s why I was born,” she explains, earning extra credit for rhyming “created” and “enervated”.

“What does it matter if I change the world at all,” she wonders in “Change the World”. The music here, ranging from a march to a Latin dance to a baroque piano figure, becomes as hard to pin down as the speaker’s thoughts. In contemplating what to do—at the moment, today, in life—she free-associates, imploring herself (“People are dying now / Do something you ugly cow”) but by the end, seemingly on the move to destinations unknown.

That’s where Side One leaves our heroine. Side Two finds Nellie McKay in fighting mode when it comes to society, refusing to settle down when it comes to musical style.

“It’s a Pose” delivers its rebuke of hypocritical, manipulative men in the lively Western swing. “Toto Dies” may be the only tango that incorporates a touch of the flying monkeys’ chant in The Wizard of Oz, plus another war reference: “Yeah, I’ll have my coffee black / Hey, look, we’re bombing Iraq.” “Won’t You Please B Nice” masquerades as a swinging novelty, but it could be the sweet entreaty Marilyn Monroe issued on her really bad days: “Give me head / Or you’ll be dead.” “Inner Peace” suggests time spent absorbing Stephen Sondheim, its musical complexity matched by the singer’s veering between the desire for the title state and recitations of reasons that state is so hard to achieve, as in “Don’t want to think about the fall elections / Don’t want to think about no vivisections.” 

“Work Song” achieves the universally longed-for marriage of sea shanty and rap, with a dose of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”, and the overall dystopian vision of Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist movie Metropolis: “I don’t think fritz lang was a fantasist / Metropolis exists / Is this / If you listen close you can hear the piss.”

“Respectable”, a tour-de-force, owes a debt to the Kinks‘ “Well-Respected Man” and, in its final moments, nods toward the Rolling Stones’ “Respectable”. XTC‘s “Respectable Street” might also be an influence. At the song’s heart swirls a piano figure, atop which McKay and Emerick have layered band, strings, and horns. In its head is the denunciation of seemingly “respectable members of society” who’ll get their comeuppances because “things ain’t what they seem.”

“Really” ends things gently and reflectively until you process the lyrics. The narrator is “mad” but not “mad enough”—in other words, “complacent”, handing out “a buck” to the needy but all in all “a yuppie fuck”. Yow. The singer couldn’t sound friendlier, complemented by rich piano chords and eloquent trumpet solos.

If the collection’s title announced that Get Away From Me would be an unconventional debut, these closing sounds and lines—like a soft cat bearing its claws, even using its fangs—make clear that Nellie McKay’s music will be as delicious yet unaccommodating as its maker pleases. You must understand and relish her doing it on her own terms. McKay wants you to like her work—she really does. But she feels obliged to depict the world as she sees it, and that’s full of cruelty, dishonesty, pain, and death. Nonhuman animals offer some solace, but their living at the mercy of humans is yet another source of discomfort.

So much happens within each song and throughout the collection, and the whole picture is of a precocious urbanite who doesn’t, as the saying goes, suffer fools gladly. The word “brilliant” comes to mind, as does the acknowledgment—the reality—that the average listener can’t deal with this many ideas, lyrical and musical. The average listener will be as alienated by this music as by Metropolis or any movie by that bygone boy genius Orson Welles, who was supposed to remake Hollywood in his image(s) and ended up with a fascinating, difficult, and individual body of work.

For the past two decades, Nellie McKay has applied her blended talents to assorted projects, plotting her own course. She followed Get Away From Me with a second pop-rock collection, Pretty Little Head, which featured guest vocals from k.d. lang and Cyndi LauperIt was due out in the fall of 2005 as a single CD with 16 tracks to be released by Columbia/Sony. McKay refused to compromise on the length or format, though. As a result, she left the label and self-released her preferred version of the album—23 tracks on two CDs, about 60 minutes, replicating the format of her debut—a full year later. The artist-versus-label battle reached The New York Times and undoubtedly enhanced McKay’s reputation for going her own way.

Here’s a little story that might be Nellie McKay’s career in a nutshell: About ten years ago, an older, musically sophisticated woman I knew heard McKay perform something, maybe a jazz standard, somewhere and wanted to hear more. I loaned her ‘Get Away from Me’, which existed worlds away from music the woman gravitated toward. While she found McKay’s talent undeniable, she couldn’t get past the lyrics’ profanity, such as the aforementioned “give me head” and “yuppie fuck” and (in “Sari,” directed at a politician) “die mother fucker.” Indeed, the CD booklet carries a “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label, which seems funny and absurd when juxtaposed with the photo of a smiling McKay on a New York street in her hooded coat and skirt. Of course, there’s graffiti on the wall behind her, and she is making that X—looking our way, yet not welcoming us with open arms.

So we might think of Nellie McKay as appealing but with an edge, offering hooks but also barbs, looking back at the past and ahead of her time. In other words, spiritually, she could be a pop star in 2024. If she were starting out today, McKay would be delivering material via the web, as catchy or crunchy or nasty as she wants it to be, independently reaching an audience ready for it and her.