extra-terrestrial, down on the corner

taking a dive through the maybe world of Lisa Germano

Album artwork for Magic Neighbor, © Dean Buchanan, 2008

Album artwork for Magic Neighbor by Dean Buchanan © 2008

“Extra-terrestrial
Down on the corner
So unfamiliar
And nakedly wonderful…”

The opening line to “Reptile,” from Lisa Germano’s 1998 studio album, Slide. This is a song I return to time and again, for any number of reasons: the perfection of the delivery, the urgency of its passivity, the crushing beauty of its sonic landscape. Besides which, it is a marvelous piece of songwriting. By the time the disorienting chorus rolls around, insisting that “the sun came out and it didn’t go away,” the listener is left wondering what planet this music emerged from, and how might we get our hands on more of the same?

In a way, the entirety of Germano’s output could be summarized in this one song. Throughout the 23-year span during which she has blessed her listeners with startlingly original recordings, a running thread has been, and remains, the incredible foreignness of being. Flipping through her catalogue, an archivist will find title after title relating to some form of “otherness:” sounds emerging from a shell, happenings in a maybe world, magic neighbors, too much space, faraway stars, and strange birds. Little wonder her Russian fan-site—the most comprehensive one I’ve found thus far—has a layout resembling a faraway galaxy. Little wonder the site originated in Russia, about as far away from the mid-west of the songwriter’s origin as one could feasibly get.

Germano unabashedly tackles areas of human existence that most songwriters’ agents would forbid them from even contemplating (the opening line of her latest album: “Ruminants/four stomachs/throw up/start over”); to some, she might run the risk of coming across an adolescent agent provocateur. But it would be a shame to miss the remarkable sense of humour permeating everything she has released over the last two decades. Her knack for spacing and juxtaposition is uncanny; her creative resources seemingly unbounded. There is only one songwriter (to my knowledge) in the history of contemporary music who could justifiably be compared to Germano in terms of the ability to write something completely new about any old subject, using a comparable economy of words, and that would be Lou Reed.

But all of this raises a series of questions: where did Lisa Germano emerge from? How has she managed to remain so sheltered from the critical eye? Why is there hardly anything written (in print or on the web) about her—no gleefully inaccurate third-party biography, no volume of collected song lyrics; not even a footnote in the recently published Miserabilist’s Guide to Music?

lisa-germano

For starters, we know the artist was born Lisa Ruth Germano on June 27, 1958, raised by Italian-American parents in Mishawaka, Indiana. Her first composition was a fifteen-minute piano opera, completed at the age of 7. She picked up the violin some years later, resulting in a relatively enduring stay as John Mellencamp’s fiddle player during the late 80s/early 90s. In 1991, she self-released her debut album, On the Way Down From the Moon Palace. Throughout the following years, she released another eight studio albums and a couple of home-made compilations, continuing to work as a session player for an impressive roster of fellow artist/musicians (including David Bowie, Neil Finn, Yann Tiersen, and Iggy Pop).

Though I admittedly suffer from the bias of a fan’s blindness to faults, I can state with more than a mild degree of confidence that Germano’s output, as a whole, is devoid of any obvious artistic misstep (if such a thing can be determined objectively). When revisiting all of her albums individually and collectively—which I have been doing repeatedly over the past several months—I never feel as though I am wading through cutting room floor material, which is a rather remarkable accomplishment: after all,when one considers the sensational output of her forementioned collaborators, David Bowie had his Glass Spider; Iggy Pop’s post-1979 career has been a study in inconsistency; and Neil Finn’s work, both within and without Crowded House, is occasionally redeemed solely by the overwhelming appeal of his voice. Which brings up yet another question: how is it that an artist of such consistency, quality, originality, breadth, and sensitivity remains such a well-kept secret?

One reason for there being so little written analysis of Germano’s work may be the self-contained nature of the work: it relies on so few reference points outside of itself that, superficially, there are hardly any dots to connect. But to declare that her music is lacking in genealogy would be an oversight; one would be remiss to ignore all-too-apparent connections to Karen Dalton, Laura Nyro, and Scarlet Rivera (to name just a few). Much like her musical ancestors, the art of Lisa Germano has long been overshadowed by the expectations of a male-dominated industry; by the same token, she never falls perfectly in line with female musicians choosing to capitalize upon a combination of sex appeal and populist-feminist tendencies.

Here is an artist who never reduced herself to any kind of political statement (though she has been an animal rights activist on the side for years); never posed for an erotically charged magazine spread; was never featured on any publication with the dreaded “Year of the Woman” headline, and never performed a Lillith Fair lineup. She side-stepped virtually every stereotype which, retrospectively, threatens to eclipse the artistic integrity of any number of contemporaries. Yet there is no reissue campaign of her catalogue forthcoming—no retrospective appreciation printed in any of the current music publications. It is as though she came out of the blue, graced us with her ingenious presence for a decade or so, and then disappeared to become a clerk in a bookstore. Unlikely as it may sound, this is the true story of Lisa Germano. Unlikelier yet is the fact that her music, in and of itself, is far more extraordinary than any of the above.

The world of Lisa Germano’s music is a world of both narrow and infinite possibility. It is a world of dreams, hope, passions; it is also a world of fear, anxiety, sadness, and nightmares. In this world, she creates such a precise distance between elements (thematically, sonically, lyrically) that the listener is allowed to feel both the vastness of the soundscape surrounding the words, and the exquisite proximity of the words themselves. The unlikely single from Happiness, “Puppet,” could be held up as a prime example: a song about going through (and finding pleasure, however inappropriate, in) the motions of standardized human behaviour, the disarmingly complex arrangement incessantly reminds us of just how far removed from standardization this songwriter truly is. Diminished and augmented guitar chords layer themselves over a jig-like violin and a warm percussion palette to create sounds that have never been present in 20th century pop vocabulary—and yet, at the same time, they defy the listener to place them in any other context. And then that voice emerges… That petulant voice. If it belonged to any other songwriter, it could easily present a source of chronic irritation; but applied as it is by Germano, it becomes an almost Brechtian device—an imitation of petulance, contrived to entice the audience into the world of the song by making us aware of its artificiality.

We never are given the impression (or even allowed the impression) of her tone being a genuine expression of disinterest—at least, not entirely genuine. This isn’t the sound of an impetuous songwriter spelling her apathy out in bold letters, for the whole world to take note: this is the sound of an extra-terrestrial imitating a celebration of apathy, as though indifference became the new norm, making as little (or as much) sense to an outsider as the earnestness of a heartfelt folk tune. The pleasure that we, as listeners, derive from these expressions lies somewhere in the space between what Germano states and what she intimates. If one were so inclined, the entirety of her work could be read as a satirical commentary on the very nature of songwriting—always questioning, always involved. Is it possible to address an audience in this medium and have one’s innermost feelings taken seriously? Is the language of pop music sufficient to contain the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of human emotion? Is it possible, through this language, to return to the roots of one’s emotions—to “change back/to when/you laughed/easier/and all/your moves/were childlike”?

Perhaps this is where a number of critics struggled in relating to the later albums, many of which were deemed painfully earnest. Listening to the only authorized live performance album available (the second disc of the beautiful Lullaby For Liquid Pig reissue by Young Gods), it is apparent that a degree of emotional sincerity is a key ingredient to her natural—as in, un-produced—approach to song. But throughout her career, she has continuously tapped into something greater than sincerity. Especially evident in her latest offering, No Elephants, Germano’s concern lies beyond mere emotions: as an artist, she engages more often with the places where emotions belong, and the wasteland which surrounds emotional authenticity.

If one chooses to become involved with her work, one will soon discover the recurring theme of attempting to restore communication with one’s own identity (“Back to Earth,” “Crash,” “Simple”), and the battle to make sense of the landscape surrounding this identity. In this regard, her work ceases to become exclusively about “feelings,” revealing itself instead to be a study in conflict: the conflict between sincerity and pragmatism; between emotion and intellect; between identity and perception; hope and desperation; the real world and the maybe world; the “you” and the “I” of any given pop song structure. One might be tempted here to categorize Germano as a contextual artist—a songwriter whose effectiveness hinges entirely upon being perceived from a certain angle, in a certain light. The strength of the songs and their delivery contradicts such simple classification, however, and one need look no further than the Happiness album for supportive evidence.

As released by Capitol records in 1993, Germano’s second studio endeavour was a creative compromise: she had been signed to the label on the obvious promise of Moon Palace, but (as worded by her Wikipedia biographer—quite tragically, the only biography of hers currently in existence) there was a “personnel shakeup” at Capitol immediately prior to the release of Happiness, and Germano was forced into more pop-friendly mixes for many of the tracks. When held up to the author-approved 4AD re-release, which came out a year later, the contrast is obvious and quite startling: the album goes from being a warm, (almost) inviting ordeal to a calculated, claustrophobic opera of dysfunction—with unsettlingly warm overtones. More remarkable is the fact that, throughout both presentations, Germano’s artistic integrity remains intact. Not that her uncensored vision came across in the Capitol release, but in spite of the label’s valiant attempt to reframe the songs as top 40 material (which they could almost pass for, if played from another room and stripped of their devastating vocals), the Lisa Germano of future releases such as Geek the Girl, Excerpts from a Love Circus, and Slide is already present and inevitable.

Which calls up another crucial strength of Germano as a contemporary artist: the integrity and cohesion of her texts. While her own presentation of these original creations is always meticulous (no doubt enhancing the strength of their impact), it’s all there in the songs—in the juxtaposition of her words against her melodic and harmonic structures. The counterpoint of her work is widespread and virtuosic: as evident in the placement of melody beside lyric as in the positioning of an arrangement around a theme, or the sequencing of tracks within an album (especially evident in the way she incorporates an Italian waltz to annihilating effect throughout the body of Geek). She constantly seems to be holding her work above its static potential by creating her own unique space for it to exist within; in this regard, she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Suzanne Vega and Rickie Lee Jones. And she’s given the world at least one certified masterpiece, for what it’s worth.

Twenty years on from its first release, Geek the Girl remains a stunning achievement. Within it, Germano presented a new take on feminism that few have dared to even approach. At a time when many women in the medium of music, from Tori Amos to Sarah McLachlan to Miss Ciccone herself, were attempting to reconcile the traditional female archetypes of the Madonna and the sensual being, Lisa Germano stood on another plane entirely. Read as a feminist statement, Geek the Girl rejected the entire basis for these archetypes, filtering them through the perspective of an adolescent girl who doesn’t know much about science (i.e. biology: maternity), Jesus (i.e. religious iconography: Mary Magdalene and Mary, mother of Christ), or power—as announced in the opening track, “My Secret Reason” (the very title implies a private, independent ideology).

As Geek advances through layers of apathy, abuse, and abasement, the darkness of the endeavour is lightened both by shocking humour and a theatrical atmosphere of alienation. Germano perfectly encapsulates the adolescent experience in every track—that time when the possibility of shattering externally imposed archetypes is still intact, and the willingness to exercise this possibility is not yet extinct. By narrating the psychodrama as a woman ten years older than the protagonist she portrays, Germano essentially reclaims her right to reject the need and/or desire to be either Madonna, whore, or both. With every twist and turn of Geek‘s narrative, she highlights the artifice of these imposed archetypes and the grand reality that exists outside of them—both horrendous and beautiful in its actual complexity. That she accomplishes all this in a cohesive series of three-to-four minute song capsules is all the more impressive.

More has probably been written about “A Psychpath…” than the rest of Germano’s output combined—which is a shame in most regards; nevertheless, it remains an incredibly ornate and daring achievement, meriting its fair share of critical analysis and debate. A mini-opera about a woman experiencing a home invasion by a sinister and unknown intruder, Germano famously incorporated the recording of a 911 phone call throughout the narrative and texture of the song, heightening the already palpable tension to a bone-chilling level of horror. At the same time, she managed to comment on the meaning of sampling in contemporary music—the re-appropriation of elements from another person’s life in an (often unsanctioned) context. The song is a juggling act of astonishing ingenuity, and the deadpan delivery of the See Spot Run-tinted lyric (“I hear a scream/I see me scream”) keeps the listener at an uncomfortable distance. More jarring still, Germano leaves no room to catch one’s breath at the song’s close, choosing instead to launch immediately into a refrain of the Italian waltz.

Geek is arguably the most tightly woven of Germano’s narrative tapestries (they could easily be called sonic novels), but it stays open wide for individual interpretation. The title character is the type seldom allowed in the realm of popular narratives (let alone pop music): dynamic, un-heroic, and disarmingly simple. (Maybe it should come as no surprise that a songwriter with parallel qualities encountered such great difficulty in finding a niche audience.) Germano allows for a reality in which both women and men exist outside of the roles created for them by patriarchal and pop-feminist histories; the tragic beauty of her statement lies in the fact that, in order to conceive of such a place, we are forced to look away from this planet—to the “Stars” of the closing track. In a final line as eloquent as it is shattering, the singer states simply: “Far away from here/I could do about anything.”

Germano’s music has held a strange appeal for gays and lesbians, who form a sizable cross-section of her (regrettably) small fan base, potentially stemming from her emphasis upon the failure of this world to accommodate the true nature(s) of its inhabitants. Rather than chant the wrongs of our reality in a tired variation of the protest song, she has conjured up and embellished her own reality: a reality in which the macabre is allowed to coexist with the childishly optimistic, where hope and hopelessness reign in equal measures. A reality that corrects the crooked balance of factual existence through a divine synthesis of the fantastic and the ordinary. In one of the standout tracks from No Elephants, “A Feast,” she celebrates this synthesis with another masterfully concise lyric—one which rather neatly encapsulates the scope of her work:

“She walks in a desert
with unwanted toys
Make me a feast
When it’s all over, god help us all
How in the world
How in the world?”

How in the world, indeed.

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