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Thursday, May 11, 2006 07:34 am

The stuff that dreams are made of

Jolie Holland’s out with her third and best album

Jolie Holland Springtime Can Kill You (Anti-)
When I was 5 or 6 years old, I believed that musicals were real. When the time was right, the people around me would burst into song, and we could finally stop worrying about what to say next because we’d all be in thrall to the music, borne aloft by an invisible orchestra. Our everyday blah-blah-blah, the ugly cadences of unscripted speech, would dissolve in a cataract of couplets. If we could just get to the right part of the story, we could belt out our beautiful secret thoughts in unison. Like Tevye and Golde, Curley and Laurey, Tony and Maria, we all had songs inside us, I thought. We just had to believe in them, and eventually they’d break free. “A song is like a dream, and you try to make it come true,” Bob Dylan writes in his memoir, Chronicles. “They’re like strange countries that you have to enter.” There’s a case to be made for craftsmanship, the journeyman’s disciplined drudgery, but who wants to hear it? The best art seems artless, as natural as birdsong. God only knows how much work went into it, how many halting imitations and mortifying failures preceded it; what matters is that it comes out reckless and inevitable. Jolie Holland doesn’t sound much like Dylan, but she reminds me of him more than any of his obvious acolytes do. It’s not because her voice slides and bends all over the place, stretching out syllables and swooping through scales as it follows the errant dictates of what fans will call style and detractors will call affectation. Nor is it because they’re both antiquarians, wanderers, and magpies. It’s because while they’re singing, they seem to be living inside their dreams, sleepwalking into strange countries — or, as Holland puts it, “There’s a mockingbird behind my house/Who is a magician of the highest degree/And I swear I heard him rip the world apart/And sew it back again with his fiery melody, melody.”
The song from which those lines are taken, “Mexican Blue,” is the final and finest track on Springtime Can Kill You, Holland’s third album and her best one yet. The other 11 songs are admirable in various ways, lovely hybrids that range from avant-Dixieland to frowsy country-blues to narcotic folk-rock. It’s tempting to praise all of them, to describe how the pump organs, pianos, glockenspiels, tubas, and box fiddles collude with her pulled-taffy drawl to trick you into believing that you’re coming unstuck in time, hurtling from an 1820s parlor to a 1920s flophouse to a sunny city bus in the early 21st century. You could write a rather impressive term paper on her recurrent imagery, those alleys and flowers and mockingbirds and moons that cycle through in seemingly endless combinations. But it’s that last song, six minutes and 28 seconds of slow, shuddering, circular beauty, that gets me. I played it 10 times in a row one night, I’ve played it countless times since, and every time I listen to it is like the first time, so I have to play it again. “You’re like a saint’s song to me,” she sings in the first and last verses. “I’ll try to sing it pure and easily.” The song is a dream, and she makes it come true. Even though I’m old enough to know better, I have to believe she’s making it up as she goes along, breaking into this radiant cornpone aria because she can’t help it, it’s just coming out of her, the way I thought it happened in musicals.
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