Are You My Mother? is a question that begs a back story as much as it does an answer. It’s a brave musician who gives such a loaded phrase the job of naming their album, but for Kathryn Calder it’s not without reason. Recorded at a time when the New Pornographers member was nursing her sick mother, who was suffering from a wasting condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and interrupted by her death, the matriarch’s influence is stamped all over the album. It’s the kind of circumstantial story that can cloud expectations, but Calder’s solo debut is by no means a universally melancholy affair; there’s as much celebration here as there is cause to mourn. First track ‘Slip Away’ starts out so emotionally fraught that it’s almost painful to hear, beginning with uncertain piano that trips like a slow heart on the offbeat as a plea is made for a story that will reveal all secrets. But when no such tale is forthcoming the song switches to a defiantly upbeat mid-section in the first of many contrasts to come, where melancholy moods continuously jostle with an old-fashioned steely reserve to persevere and flourish.
Resigned to the impossibility of putting on a brave face, ’Castor & Pollux’ makes no secret of the fact that the chambers of a heart have been pulled wide open. And while it may seem rather mawkish to encourage the grief voyeurs to pry, there’s something ghastly truthful in Calder’s hurt honesty as she sings, “I don’t need trouble now, but I like you around.” The downbeat but beautiful ‘Arrows’ invites the universe to do its worse with its tired refrain of “Fire away”, before the upbeat travelling song ‘If You Only Knew’ announces its welcome arrival with a contrasting clap. Full of joy without the feelgood falsehood of platitudes, it gives a good impression of a clumsy clatter over broken ground as home is sighted and life begins anew. San Francisco may be a summertime Shangri-La but there’s still no place like home, and at times of emotional challenge you need roots that go a little deeper if you’re to truly grow.
It’s time for goodnights and goodbyes in ‘Down The River’ as subdued military drums and atmospheric strings build to a quiet consequence before winter arrives in all its melancholy pomp. This is a song rooted in a sense of powerlessness in the relentless turning of the natural cycle, and the season’s close at hand again in the classic American indie-rock of ‘A Day Long Past Its Prime’, a song whose simplicity belies the depth of its emotion while recalling Calder’s former band Immaculate Machine. Late album highlight ‘So Easily’ is another jagged little number wrapped up in deceptive sweetness, hinting once more that Calder’s solo debut is, at heart, a pop record which never loses sight of the need to hook and entertain. But pop music feels too ephemeral a description for what she has created. It’s far from faultless but Are You My Mother? is an album touched by the deepest and most timeless of human experiences. You can’t help but find clues both real and imagined in its loaded three-minute diversions.
[Oscar Street; August 29, 2011]