Patricia Barber – Mythologies (2006)

Patricia Barber’s cool, astute jazz cast a spell on me the very first time I heard “Cafe blue”, her 1994 album, filled to the brim with complex and subdued emotions and detached commentary reminding me of Laurie Anderson’s style of performance, except much more focused on the music than on the words and theatrics. Her personal, no-nonsense vocal style, her perfectly controlled piano playing and band performance have defined her style from the start, and I believe Mythologies does a great job of illustrating this, while taking it a step further.

You see, Mythologies is what you might call a “concept album”. This is a rare thing indeed in jazz. It’s somewhat of a nonsensical term in general (and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull will be the first to highlight this) but this is especially true in jazz, where, theoretically, every single note stems from a concept of music the artist is playing with, free of commercial constraints and trends. In spite of this, “Mythologies” remains a concept album, being guided and molded around a central element which resides outside the musical realm. Patricia Barber took Ovid’s Metamorphoses, absorbed them and exhaled them again as this album, like an alchemical oven. What she’s managed to pull of here is shatter any doubt, if there was any to be held, that ancient texts, written in all-but-forgotten languages and according to rules and themes which have since left the repertoire of poets can remain poignantly relevant to this day, and more importantly to today’s listener. By infusing these ancient words with the modern cool of her music, by making them her own as she sings about deeply personal and emotional experiences, she’s re-birthed them for us all.

However, this is just me taking an intellectual appreciation for her work (as did the Guggenheim Fellowship committee when they made her the only songwriter ever to receive this distinction). What moves me about this album isn’t the concept of it; as it is with most things, what moves me is the music. Ever patient, ever in control without being cold, Patricia Barber weaves a musical web of emotion which falls like a veil every time I play this amazing release. It’s a wonder how, given eleven very different mythological characters to work with, Patricia Barber manages to give her album such cohesion. And she does all of this without overpowering her characters, without imposing coherence via vocal and stylistic limitation but by imposing an exceptionally high standard for composition. Jazz is normally equated with improvisation, the antipodal counterpart of classical music. There’s certainly plenty of room for this on her album, but it’s the structure of it which gives it meaning, the framework, and this framework doesn’t come from the “concept” of the album, but from the vision of the musicians, their exceptional ability to work as a team.

Rarely have I ever encountered music so prone to incite tactile sensations in me. I feel it’s so close, so very close to me that it’s easier to liken it to the feeling of fabric on skin, a warm clay mug in the palms of my hands, old, dry wood under my feet, than to anything else. Immediacy, sincerity, coupled with a wealth of emotion to be read between the lines, to be deduced and teased out of the notes and the lyrics, these are things which define this album as much as it can be defined. The musical crescendo at the end of Icarus, fading into the mournful, unequaled raw suffering contained in Orpheus/Sonnet… I am at a loss as to what I could say about this moment which can do it justice. I’ve noticed that the more I like an album the harder it is for me to write about it, as if words have no cracks to fill in the pristine, shimmering surface the music presents me. Mythologies illustrates this difficulty the most out of what I’ve written about so far and it annoys me to want to say so much and find so little ability to say it.

When pianos act like heartbeats, guitars sound like words – a cascade of laments, but words nonetheless, jumbled and half-swallowed, but words nonetheless – when the bass feels like the inevitable ebb and flow of air in the lungs and Patricia Barber’s voice feels like blood rushing through arteries, vital, warm and always in the dark, what’s there left for me to say? Who can speak of a living, breathing thing as if it were an object to be studied and… recommended it to others? I don’t feel comfortable doing that. Here it is, simply. See you all tomorrow.

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