“You can’t be wise and in love at the same time.” Bob Dylan said that. It’s probably not true. Not forever, at least. But for the rational – let’s say for the self-contained – the process of falling in love unexpectedly confronts years of hard-won habits and mindsets. Those opening moments, when the plane is off the ground and the windowshade is opened for the first time and the ground suddenly appears so far below, will give you vertigo. Never mind, for the moment, the destination or even the journey itself. Forget not looking back; don’t look down.
Or do. Elisa Ambrogio, frontwoman of Connecticut no-wavers Magik Markers, begins The Immoralist with a survey from the air. Over fluttering kickdrum and chiming major chords, she confesses a love that overwhelms her rationality. Love has her breaking wishbones and wishing on stars. “I don’t see ghosts/I don’t believe in thirteen,” she sings by way of apology, “But I get superstitious when it comes to you and me.”
It’s a precise, complex portrait, a demonstration of the singer’s realizing that she’s lost herself in another person. Whether the love is requited isn’t really the point here; recognizing that your identity has been subsumed into that of another is enough. It’s delivered from beneath a blanket of reverb and with an air of fear and melancholy, but what makes it great – what makes it almost perversely un-rock ‘n’ roll – is the way Ambrogio rolls up the ends of that chorus line, the resolution she puts on the “you and me,” and the major chords that are struck from the accompanying piano with a kind of pleased defiance. When she does it again in the next song, “Reservoir,” singing as she does of being arm-in-arm with her beloved and gently promising “I don’t want this with no one else,” it’s enough to make you stop what you’re doing and whistle in admiration.
And it’s not Ambrogio’s only trick. She carries her howling guitar over from Magik Markers, but here it’s subdued, pressed and molded into the gaps in her songs. She paints “Kyrie” with blobs of kickdrum and broad brushes of cello, then lets that guitar shatter the scene like dry and crackling paint. She drops her voice into a Kim Gordon pout in the propulsive “Stopped Clock,” then uses it to drawl out the opening lines of “Clarinet Queen,” where detail stands in for story (“Second chair clarinet queen/Touches her tongue to her reed”). Dusky melancholy moments like these fall on The Immoralist like a fine dust, but the shaking of Ambrogio’s guitar keeps it from gathering and obscuring the handiwork beneath.
That’s a bit florid. I know. But Ambrogio’s talent for subtlety, her patience with her own storytelling, is arresting. Love here is thoroughly alive and deeply gut-wrenching. Memories are mourned and celebrated in equal measure; harmony lives alongside dissonance. There’s no pixie dust or puppy sounds, no super-sweet sap. It’s refreshing and mildly threatening, and it’s the farther thing from twee: it’s the truth. words / m garner