Angels Bend Closer, billed as Jane Siberry’s first official album in five years, is actually her first one in close to 20 that I’ve fallen in love with. Alas, ours was a torrid musical love affair that bloomed in the the early 80’s and faded in the mid-90’s. She made flawless albums and I bought and played them religiously (ominous foreshadowing) right up til the day I got rock blocked by… Him. You see, Jane fell head over heels for a bearded young man, a lad who was way ahead of the lumbersexual craze, the guy could turn water into wine… and so I bid the two of them adieu, until now.
In her heyday, Jane Siberry was considered the Canadian Kate Bush. While I envisioned a young Kate growing up in a giant English manor filled with great works of literature, Jane’s more freestyle muse suggested an upbringing filled with theater, poetry slams, coffee house open mics, folk festivals and public radio. Her early albums were joyous, inventive, heartbreaking, romantic and visionary — sometimes all of the above swirled into a single song. New wave, folk, pop, waltz and traditional music all co-mingled in the Siberry cafe. ‘Map of World (Part II)’ from The Speckless Sky just might be the very first Steampunk anthem, it was immediately followed by one of the most gut-wrenching breakup songs ever, ‘The Taxi Ride’.
‘Writers are a Funny Breed’ is one of the most beautiful songs ever created; in many ways, it set my life in direction. Still to this day, her track ‘Everything Reminds Me of My Dog’ dissipates depression better than any drug ever could.
And then the 90’s came; Kate went into hiding after 1993’s The Red Shoes, kindred spirits Lene Lovich and Nina Hagen dropped off the face of the Earth, Tori Amos’s albums became progressively less exciting, as did Bjork’s. My relationship with Jane’s music sank like a bat into hell when she set her sights on heaven and her music took on a primarily religious tone and agenda.
When the going gets rough, and believe you me we live in rough times, one can turn to family, friends or faith for solace. I’ve never labeled myself an atheist or agnostic, but I see no use in wasting away this life hoping to gain entry into something grander in the next. If someone finds solace in faith of any type, God Bless em, just please don’t try to convert me. I feel the same way about Game of Thrones, I get it, you love it.
When it comes to secular, escapist pop music that suddenly gets a religious recruitment agenda, I follow the teachings of Sting, if you love someone, set them free. And so I kept buying Jane Siberry albums for a while, but listened to the new ones less often — her takes on traditional hymns were no match for Pulp, Rancid, Smashing Pumpkins, Foo Fighters and other acts that led me through the end of the century.
With the arrival of Jane’s new album, I tapped back into her catalog and rediscovered the magic all over again. While it’s easy to compare Kate and Jane’s sound, Jane’s career track bares surprisingly more similarities to Prince. Both Jane and Prince grew up in cold winter climates, they filtered so many musical styles and influences into their work, they created sounds truly unique to themselves. Prince sang of the struggle to balance God, love and sexual desire; culminating in one of the most joyous religious anthems of our time, ‘The Cross’ from 1987’s Sign O’ The Times. But when he turned Jehovah’s Witness, he disowned much of his early work, changed ‘The Cross’ to ‘The Christ’ and set about a musical downward spiral (dead-ending in The Rainbow Children) that he was just lifting out of at the time of his death. When Jane turned to God, trading in her wildly creative and universal songs for traditional hymns and religious original work, she slid off the commercial map of the world and back into coffee house circuit. According to her Wiki page, she gave up most of her worldly possessions and toured by playing living room concerts.
Angels Bend Closer is a phenomenal return to the sound I used to love, balanced by quieter, more ethereal and religious songs that honor where she’s been these past two decades. The converted will find plenty to love within the album’s 15 exquisite tracks (a few of which have been on previous releases, potentially in other forms). Fans from other religions or none at all can still wander in, browse around and find a lot to enjoy.
The Cross sneaks into the “J” in her name on the cover and spine of the Angels Bend Closer CD, so you can’t blame Jane promising an agnostic front and delivering Kumbaya; this is a religious album and it makes no apologies. ‘Walk on Water’ is the first tune on the disc, and while you might think the blatant Jesus reference would send people like me running up that hill, it is a quite lovely and welcoming affair. The jubilant melodies and phenomenal production that marked much of her Duke Street and Reprise albums, greets visitors at the door, setting the stage for Jane’s trademark falsetto — warm, sweet, playful and ageless. Jane sings with wisdom for sure, but rays of sunshine that were abundant in earlier work make a welcome return.
‘Living Statue’ reunites Siberry with k.d. lang; the dynamic duo behind Siberry’s biggest hit, ‘Calling All Angels’. This one is certainly more meditative and tranquil, but beautiful and engaging nonetheless. Jane tells Billboard magazine that the song was inspired by visits to a particular church in Northern Ontario and her desire to contribute music that could be performed there. Read the full interview here.
Loss and loneliness are prevalent themes throughout the album, floating like dark clouds across otherwise sunny melodies. On ‘Send Me Someone To Love’, her pleas to the universe are quite universal — ‘(send me) someone whose kiss I can understand and who would understand mine…’. It’s enchanting, inspiring and heartbreaking, you just want to reach through the stereo and hug her, well, until she sings this: “someone who won’t mind a mÃ©nage-a-trois/you and me and God/for God is great/God is good in bed.” It’s funny the first time you hear it, and tragic the next, as if she is unable to commit to another human soul without feeling like she’s selling hers. When balanced with the themes of disapproval from her family (see below), it brings to mind the issues I faced coming out trans to a primarily pro-Trump family; or the issues some in the LGBT community face before coming out; when they lose themselves in religion to appease the guilt and shame brought on by their parents. The lyrics also seem to imply Jane intentions for this album. She’s brought back much of the commercial sound of her most popular work, while also staying true to her faith and her mission to lead fans into the flock. Can she have it all? We’ll see.
On ‘Dante’, a simple trip home for Thanksgiving becomes living hell for the protagonist as she feels judged by her family “as you went to leave/he half rose up from his easy chair/and tiny flames licked the walls” — as she runs through a crowd, nobody is able to console her, only religion offers solace: “may you feel the angels bend closer when you call/may you see your own beauty as you see in us all.” At first listen, I thought this song was called ‘Baby, Baby, Baby’ which would have been one ‘baby’ better than Amy Grant’s contemporary Christian crossover smash.
On the next track, Siberry tries to remember or re-imagine better times with her family, “I’m running along with my family… no one’s missing… we are holy in my dream.” Whatever static she has with her family is her business and hers alone; I just wish she could find comfort in kindred spirits here on Earth and live her truth, whatever it is, proudly.
‘Positively Beautiful’ gives hope that Siberry can eventually find true comfort within herself and within the love of others. She sings “I saw you pick yourself up and turn your life around.” The song and sentiment are glorious. Hallelujah. ‘Anytime’ is another joyous track that walks the perfect line, being open enough for evangelicals to interpret as the word of God, and vague enough for anyone to take as sentiment on the strength of love, friendship and the human spirit: “anytime that you want me, I will always be there.”
When a train rolled through ‘Something About Trains’, a waltz from her 1989 masterpiece, Bound By The Beauty, darkness was coming: “Every time I hear that whistle blowing, I find myself shivering in my soul.” But she followed the track with one of the highlights of her entire career, ‘Hockey’, a joyous snapshot of childhood, small town neighborhoods and finding heaven here on Earth.
When the trains roll back into town on ‘The Great Train’, the closing track on Angels Bend Closer, the train is death and it’s coming to take you away my friend: “When the great train of freedom comes, no one will be left behind… all shall be lifted up into the light.”
As heartbreaking as it is at times, Angels Bend Closer overall is a tremendously rewarding, enchanting and uplifting listen. It re-establishes Siberry as one of the great singers and songwriters of our lifetime. Should this be the coda on her career as a semi-crossover artist, it ends it on a high note. Should this be the beginning of a new era, one where everyone is invited to the party, the new chapters she writes are limited only by her imagination.
I wish I had more new tracks to share, but alas, I don’t. So here is the very apt ‘The Sky Is So Blue’ from Jane Siberry (1981):
While Angels Bend Closer is available digitally (street date November 18, 2016), I highly recommend picking up the CD on Amazon, CD Baby or at your local store. Sound wise, the richness of the production demands the very highest possible fidelity. The packaging is gorgeous, the booklet is filled with colorful photos, lyrics, a note from Jane and session notes that honor all of the contributing musicians.
I will update this post as embeds and streams of the new songs come available; until then, this is the single that started it all…