Muddying the Waters: Retro-minded songwriter’s latest suffers from vague ideas, blurry edges
Jolie Holland has a problem with consonants. On her new album, Springtime Can Kill You, she swallows her p’s and b’s and slurs past her t’s and d’s till her delivery becomes a barely decipherable, mealy-mouthed mumble.
No doubt this was a deliberate artistic strategy, but it’s a choice that hints at the deeper problems of this disc. Holland’s songwriting as well as her performance implies a belief that vagueness is always best. If I can keep the lyrics nebulous, she seems to say, the melodies minimalist and the rhythms unassertive, there’s more room for the listener to inject his or her imagination into the song. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how most pop music works.
The best pop songs provide us with a lyric, a tune, a beat and/or a harmony that’s so clearly defined, so pleasurably focused that we can’t resist it. We’re drawn in until we become a character in the story the song is telling. The very best pop songs never dictate how we should feel about the sharply sketched story we’re suddenly a part of, and that open-endedness can be the most exhilarating part of the experience.
But that open-endedness isn’t worth much if we haven’t been grabbed by the clarity of a song’s images in the first place. That’s the mistake Holland and so many other indie artists make; they’re so anxious to give the listener room to respond that they forget to provide something worth responding to.
The word “dream” shows up a lot on Holland’s new album. She introduces her own song, “Nothing Left To Do But Dream;” she interprets “Crazy Dreams” by Vancouver slam-poet/singer C.R. Avery; she sings of “my crazy dreams” on “Stubborn Beast” and, on “Mexican Blue,” of lying nearby as her lover “dreamed” in bed. She also mentions “shadows,” “a mysterious bird” and a “ghostly girl,” as if she were filling up her songs with dry-ice smoke. Actual dreams, however, are fascinating not because they’re hazy but because their images don’t readily yield their meaning.
Holland’s vagueness extends to her music. Her mumbly vocals are backed by chamber-rock arrangements that add cello, French horn, pump organ, lap steel and accordion to understated drums and guitar. Everything moves in slow motion, as if that lent profundity to the proceedings, and even then the vocals rarely keep time. Perhaps Holland believes that singing off the beat creates tension, but it merely diffuses what little energy these songs possess.
It is possible to over-define a song, so that every note is highly polished and perfectly positioned, so that every space is filled and the listener is manipulated into only one possible reaction (e.g. Mariah Carey.) But it’s also possible to under-define a song, to leave both the words and music so murky, so blurry that the listener has nothing to grab onto. This latter approach—that so plagues Holland’s record—is based on a faulty premise and the sooner that premise is punctured, the better her music will be.