The Pull of Life

My first encounter with Jane Siberry’s new recording, Maria, occurred during the brutal Montreal winter, which has a way of getting under my heaviest clothes, clenching me up tightly into a grey ball. I buried my face in the CD jacket and wept as I walked home, bumping into parking meters and those folks who didn’t get out of my way in time.

This reaction may seem extreme, but it is one of this Canadian songwriter’s great gifts: An artist who moves the way she wants to move, Siberry can meet us where we are (approaching winter, in this case), letting us sink into that moment while simultaneously making us remember the beauty that’s always around, waiting to be acknowledged and drawn “into your spine.” Like Annie Dillard, Siberry is a “looker,” one whose eyes are open to the textured richness of reality in all its brokenness and gratuitous beauty.

Maria is about spring, rebirth. Motifs of lambs, children, a yellow dress, flowers, and bumblebees all trace their paths in the form of adapted nursery rhymes and Siberry’s own intricate writing. All these creatures and things are gathered together in a force of creative momentum to convey the “pull of life.” The days of spring are “the days of open and procession,” when all life moves into “the great open-ness.” At its best, the writing draws us into Siberry’s gaze and her sense of the world as a buzzing, shaking, and living creature.

However, the playfulness and seeming naivete of the fundamental motifs are an act of remembrance by the adult who rediscovers the wonder of the child as part of the process of growing into wholeness and health. The theme of “the garden of love” is intertwined with questions of how to “hold the Vision” in the context of a journey that has been “a long long way down and...a long long long long time.” This is a playfulness with passion, but it is a grounded passion, rooted in the contradictions and paradoxes of everyday experiences and musical structure.

Among its treats, Maria includes the 20-minute epic piece “Oh my, my,” which Siberry originally wanted to publish separately. It records a journey into addiction and despair and the coming of age that results. “Oh my, my” continues the images of lambs and nursery rhymes, while offering an illuminating juxtaposition with the rest of Maria, drawing out the themes of the rediscovery and reinterpretation of childhood by the adult explored earlier. Together, the two sections create a seamless whole.

MARIA IS 95 percent jazz—a stunning departure for Siberry, stretching her musical, lyrical, and structural boundaries. She hand-picked her pianist, bassist, drummer, percussionist, and trumpeter, and it’s obvious why: None of the musicians are selfish. All work together to create the musical momentum that reinforces the thematic “pull of life” present in the lyrics.

In her previous work, notably When I Was a Boy, Siberry layers her music with many harmonies, doubled voices, and instruments. Maria, on the other hand, is pared down; it figures in primary colors, giving the listener a sense that she has grabbed on to the shirttails of the music and is hanging on for an exhilarating ride.

Unfortunately, this method is not completely consistent and, at times, comes up short. In “Would You Go?” the musical innovation and risk-taking become musically opaque, without a melodic hook to root the listener and help find a way through to the message. (Unless this is the message.) Siberry’s voice, adapted somewhat to the jazz genre, keeps many of its beloved idioms; she doesn’t try to be Billie Holiday.

Maria is a reminder of the importance of giving attention to the dynamism of creation. We remember that it is through relationship that we awake to the celebration and struggle that Maria and “Oh my, my” convey: “No one in the village will leave these shores/Until the child is safe once more/So if you see that child in someone’s eyes/Bring us home.”

This recording is definitely one to bring home.

Review of Maria. By Jane Siberry (Reprise Records, 1995).

RACHEL SMITH is a musician and a student at McGill University in Montreal.

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