The Agony & The Ecstasy
It is an album whose incubation is shrouded in mystery. Throughout its shifting moods and styles, one savours that voice: one moment floating upon starsailing crescendos, the next a crumbling interior avalanche, buckling breathlessly beneath a stream of consciousness deluge of jagged emotion. If the vocal performances sound raw and spontaneous, the instrumental arrangements by contrast, suggest a creative process of painstaking precision: clearly envisioned, perfectly measured.
Recorded in 1983-84, but not released until 1988, one might imagine Miss America to have drained Toronto’s Mary Margaret O’Hara both emotionally and physically. Certainly, the album had a complicated evolution. After being signed by Virgin, O’Hara was given creative carte blanche, but from the very beginning the problems mounted up. Andy Partridge of XTC had been tasked with its production, but it soon became clear that the pair could not work together. Partridge, unable to fit in with her modus operandi, reputedly lasted one day. Enter the formidable figure of Joe Boyd, producer of more classic folk roots albums than it is possible to count. Almost all of the songs you hear on the album date from the sessions he oversaw at Rockfield Studios in South Wales in 1984, but remarkably, by the time the album finally saw the light of day, Boyd was uncredited on the sleeve. He has spoken very candidly about this elsewhere (http://www.joeboyd.co.uk/rentree-letter)
Eventually, the production credits would go to Michael Brook, who had already worked with Eno, David Sylvian and the late Pakistani superstar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a devotional singer of such strength and singularity who could attain similarly feverish trancelike states. However, a more obvious touchstone would be Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. In their mutual search for spiritual ecstasy, the parallels between O’Hara and Morrison are obvious. Compare “the loves to love the love’s to love the love that loves…” of Morrison’s ‘Madame George’ to O’Hara’s “Joy is aim-eh, joy is the aim-eh, joy…” from ‘Year In Song’, the oldest tune here, written on the cusp of the 1980s. Or again with virtually all of the incomparable ‘Body’s In Trouble’, where an inscrutably awkward carnal tangle is enlightened by the most sublime fadeout. Just as well perhaps, as O’Hara sounds like she’s being recorded having a psychological breakdown live in the studio. Graeme Thomson wrote that Miss America contains “an aura of exorcism. She has talked about inner and outer voices and believes in unseen powers” and a mystical web weaves itself through the album’s rich tapestry.
From the aching Patsy Cline inspired C&W of ‘Dear Darling’, through the angelic (go on, listen, it is not a lazy adjective) lounge jazz of ‘Keeping You In Mind’, to the gulping funk hiccup of ‘Not Be Alright’, it is clear we are hearing something quite extraordinary.“When your heart is sick with wonder/at a long and lonely way/walk in brightness/cause its anew day”, she purrs effortlessly as if she were a hundred years old on the masterfully crafted gladsome swing of ‘Anew Day’, which must have had the likes of Nanci Griffith weeping with envy. The most perfectly executed performance of all is on ‘Help Me Lift You Up’ where that voice surreptitiously reaches acrophobic heights over a languid rhythm redolent of Tim Buckley’s godlike ‘Morning Glory’. And with only double bass for accompaniment, she closes out with the most fragile finale imaginable – virtually singing herself to sleep on ‘You Will Be Loved Again’
Morrissey adored it, prompting him to requisition her services for ‘November Spawned A Monster’, but 28 years on from its release, O’Hara remains something of a recluse, defiantly at odds with… well… with the way things ought to be. “Just because I have an idea, I don’t have to make something of it” she quipped some time later with characteristic contrariety. Frustratingly, she has barely exercised her tonsils since, contributing only sporadically to others’ music, whilst producing virtually nothing of her own: a Christmas EP in 1991 and the soundtrack to the film Apartment Hunting a decade later (although tantalisingly, one new song emerged earlier this year). And so, she remains a puzzling enigma. The songs presented to Virgin for her second album we very well may never hear. The label apparently found them too obtuse. Like those critics at the time who labelled her ditsy and kooky or those who heard only a coffee table companion, the public failed to appreciate O’Hara’s unconventional, blessed genius, or recognise a soul possessed by strange angels. (JJ)