(Kill Rock Stars; 2010)
By Lindsay Zoladz | 15 October 2010
Marnie Stern makes brainy music. By which I don’t mean she writes it out in a complex series of algorithms after hours on MIT chalkboards. I mean brainy in the most corporeal sense of the word: her fingerpicked notes fire off like overactive synapses; her primal, occasionally muffled voice sounds like a subconscious might if it could carry a tune; and her lyrics express an almost disarming vulnerability—like the things that, although they flash through your head in your most scared or weak or unsure moments, you’d probably never actually say aloud. All of this makes her music feel hyper-intimate, and listening to one of her records from front to back offers the strange and often exhausting illusion of having traveled at lightspeed through someone else’s mind. It is, in short, some Magic School Bus shit.
Stern’s debut, In Advance of the Broken Arm (2007), was a freewheeling declaration of her distinct style, but it was her previous album, This Is It and I Am It and Didn’t We All Learn Titling An Album Something Like This Was Annoying for Reviewers That Time Fiona Apple Did It (2008) that really pared things down and gave us a clear and exhilarating sense of what Stern’s music is all about. With an almost childlike energy, This Is It teemed with a constant sense of adventure undercut by the decidedly adult pathos that comes when one realizes the adventure is entirely in one’s head. But here’s what makes it all so cathartic: Stern’s music professes this really earnest belief in the glory of just putting things out there—in words, in notes, in song. “Will this lonely life get any better? / At least this song will last forever,” she, in “Vault,” repeats over and over until it really starts to sound like the record’s statement of purpose. Even when they’re about overcoming crippling, everyday obstacles (and a lot of her songs are), they end, almost without fail, on these inherently triumphant notes. The triumph, she always seems to be saying, is in the very fact that the song exists.
Her third record, Marnie Stern, asks us to do something pretty difficult, as it wants us to make that leap into Stern’s cloistered, intimate world, though this time without the immediate promise of catharsis. Marnie Stern is a record about instability, confusion, and, above all things, loss. The latter theme really sets the tone in opener “For Ash,” which happens to be one of the best songs Stern’s ever recorded. It’s about her attempts to deal with an ex-boyfriend’s recent suicide, but the back story isn’t required to feel how hugely it swells with hurt. “For Ash” is both hulking and agile, switching tempos on a dime, animated by Zach Hill’s propellant drumming and Stern’s Xena-like battle-cries. There’s a bleakness to the record that courses through almost unrelentingly; if Marnie Stern has a statement of purpose, it’s the stark refrain in “Risky Biz”: “I’ve got something in my soul / Pushing me to hold onto the pain.”
We are compelled to follow, but without any moments of self-affirming fist-pumping (like “Transformer” or “Ruler” on her last album), it’s tough. Though this her shortest album, it’s just as exhausting a listening experience as her others. There is, however, a refreshing gentleness to the finale “The Things You Notice,” but, unlike the tracks on This Is It, it doesn’t always deliver that familiar flush of relief. And—in terms of her progression as an artist—maybe that’s for the better. One of Stern’s greatest strengths is that she never relies on any tried and true shorthand when it comes to self-expression. Her emotions are distinctly hers, and here she crafts a distant, inarticulate sadness that nobody else can claim—though we can certainly relate, right along with her.