Nellie McKay: “Home Sweet Mobile Home”
It’s been a busy year for Nellie McKay, I muse to myself as I wait at Central Park West and 86th for our walk in the Park with Hank & Bessie, her rescue dogs. But before I can proffer these words as a re-introduction, Nellie arrives with a preemptive grin, saying, “It’s been a busy year for you, hasn’t it?” Not only can I think of a witty comeback on this late summer afternoon, Nellie further disarms me by offering a gracious hug. Then, I am handed Hank’s lead and we are off towards the Reservoir’s dusty, wide path that circles the city’s water supply and serves as home to the city’s many runners.
After touring in support of last year’s “Normal As Blueberry Pie” (her absolutely marvelous tribute to Doris Day) and a two week engagement earlier in the summer at New York’s finest cabaret house, Feinstein’s, it’s been a very busy year for Nellie McKay. She’s recorded one-offs for fellow New Yorker David Byrne’s “Here’s To Love” album that reimagines Imelda Marcos’ life as a series of disco songs, a hilarious “Late Again” for the “Dear New Orleans” album to support Katrina victims — she added that she had a Johnny Cash-thing going on — and two film projects. One was writing and performing songs for HBO’s latest big event series, “Boardwalk Empire” and the other co-starring in and more songs for “Downtown Express,” an independent picture that’s currently in post production.
And she found time to write and record thirteen new songs for “Home Sweet Mobile Home” (Verve) — released on September 28 — which is the impetus for today’s get-together. But, it is with an unexpected pleasantness I find that Nellie is more pensive today, replete with reflection, contemplation and seriousness. The new record is an ambitious recording, a serious record about serious things. It’s as though she has taken the training wheels off and is going to see how far her sense of balance and timing will take her.
Recorded in New York, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, the Poconos and Jamaica, the album kicks off with an anti-pollution lament,”Bruise on the Sky” that’s reminiscent of that scene in “Wall-E” when Wall-E looks up at the sky and for a brief glorious moment sees a patch of blue that then quickly dissolves back into an eternal grayness. Then it’s straight into “Adios” where, with just a ukelele, she sings “Goodbye to false paradise, goodbye rinky dink eden, may you lie yourself to sleep tonight.” Without hesitation she slips into the danceable single “Caribbean Time” that you soon realize is about dictatorships, military and otherwise: “I can see the future…The words of oppression are go go go.” It takes a few moments for the tone and tenor of the album to sink in. Once it does, it’s quite a ride.
Integral to this ambition are her lyrics, the most devastating of which run counter to the upbeat, sometimes carnival-like music. Those lyrics are not simply one-dimensional diatribes as, depending on where you view them, they can be societal, cultural, personal and, in at least one instance, inter-species. If that were not enough, they often shift their perspective, sometimes within a single verse. At the moment I am about to ask about these perceptions, Nellie, as if she knows where I am going, slows her step and says with a great gentleness, “You know, the songs mean whatever you want them to mean.”
So, I do not ask her specifics or about the most haunting track on the album, “Portal,” a song about loss and regret. Beginning in the third person, quickly moving to the first, it’s an unapologetic love song.
But not to wallow, the song that follows is the uplifting “Bodega,” a joyous ode to the small, family-centered Spanish convenience stores that once dotted the landscape of New York. But not just there, as my first exposure to them was the Cuban ones in the Keys that were the center of much life in those communities, even on Simonton Street. They were multi-generational. When Nellie sings of marriage proposals happening there she’s right on the mark as I saw many young men and women dating while working at their familes’ Bodegas. Bodegas were central to the cultural and romantic life of communities, not simple stop ‘n shops.
Musically, the album is a compendium of music of the Americas, North and South. Southern blues to 1970’s soul to New Orleans parades to reggae to merenge serve as mutli-layered backdrops so dense that at times seem to obscure their pointed lyrics. It’s certainly the most successful “wall of sound” like recording I have heard since Cat Power’s “The Greatest.”
Great disco horns you swear you have heard somewhere before and “Baby, baby” refrains serve as an introduction to two of the album’s most ambiguous songs, “No Equality” and “Absolutely No Equality.” Back to back, done in different styles there’s little doubt what their political import is, but they can also be read as power ebbing and flowing within a relationship, with, invariably, one person always coming out on top.
The most intriguing song on the album also happens to be the title of Charlie Mingus’ autobiography, “Beneath the Underdog.”
It’s a sweet refection on relationships, between a culture and a person, between lovers, and between a person and her/his animal companions, sometimes taking on the point of view of “One who’s tail is wagging…here beneath the underdog is where I’d rather be.”
It is difficult is envision an outwardly angry Nellie McKay, but she saves her most brutal lyrics for a song near the end. Using the music that was born in protest, in “Unknown Reggae” she sweetly sings — again in contrast — about the torturous fate of animals as the result of animal farming: “Eating that burger, pass the condiments, eating that torture, don’t you let your conscience bother you.” And even lightly touches upon a possible revenge of such animals.
Nellie and I have discussed this before, not just the effects of animal farming upon the animals themselves, but the environment (it’s the single largest source of CO2 emissions on the planet) and it’s numbing effect it has on those who eat meat without giving it a second thought, totally unaware of the consequences of their actions. Meat is just something you buy in a market or something you order from a menu, never knowing where it came from, never knowing how it arrived to you, never knowing that there are more productive ways to use the land and natural resources that are devoted to animal harvesting.
During our walk we seem to speak little about the new record — even less about her other projects — and by it’s end I am struck not by Nellie’s political awareness, her fondness for the great American songbook or even her undiluted talent — all of which are immense — but rather her great sense of empathy. An empathy combined just the right amount of bewilderment that entices a person to seek out and explore desires, both obvious and obscure, not unlike a physicist pulling together diverse elements seeking that elusive theory of everything, the grand design in an otherwise chaotic world. A world that may be on the verge of even more chaos.