Not Just Another Singer-Songwriter

By Peter Valelly

As I frantically packed my belongings on the last day of finals, I couldn’t help but notice some pretty great-sounding music emanating from my roommate’s speakers. Tuneful and appealing yet charmingly disjointed, it was guided by a delicate, high-pitched female voice. Intrigued, I initiated a familiar ritual: “Hey, who is this? I really like it.” “Christine Fellows,” my roommate replied. “The album is called ‘Paper Annniversary.’ I really like it, too.”I shrugged. I recognized the name, and an endorsement from the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle echoed in my head: “nobody else is writing at Christine’s level.” This was certainly high praise, and from one of my favorite lyricists, no less. However, while I had enjoyed what my roommate had played, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Fellows was just another singer-songwriter. She would be affable, delicate, and gentle, I imagined, but inseparable from dozens of others.

Nonetheless, I gave “Paper Anniversary” a chance. It was dull at first, yet not in the ways I had imagined. The album, surprisingly, is riddled with strange electronic and instrumental interludes and song fragments. Its fullest songs, meanwhile, are quietly crowded with off-kilter musical flourishes and found sounds. They seemed to lurk sufficiently yet disappointingly out of reach, never disrupting Ms. Fellows’ piano pop sound enough to be truly captivating.

Perhaps this initial reaction of mine betrays a certain bias — over the last couple of years I’ve grown less interested in lyricism in music, searching instead for purely sonic thrills. Lyrics had simply ceased to impress me, and the possibilities they represented, especially in today’s climate, seemed inconsequential and meek stacked against the still-rich, if often frustratingly unfulfilled, possibilities of pure sound.

If this approach ignores unexplored potential in lyricism, it’s because many, many songwriters working in 2007 are ignoring it too. But Christine Fellows, I discovered, is not. “Vertebrae,” the song my roommate had been playing, took several listens to reveal itself, but after a week of listening to it I was completely hooked. The song, Fellows alerts us in the opening lyric, is “a photo essay of a family in mourning.” That statement of purpose bears itself out in the song’s fractured use of imagery, while dense, emotionally charged couplets further illuminate and complicate its story of an elderly relative’s death. The song is divided into distinct scenes both lyrically and musically; some are dreamy (“Sunday traffic clears a path/We float inches above the road”) and others devastatingly bleak (“Fall to my knees in the hospital parking lot on the way in”).

Although I am suspicious of the term realistic, it seems somehow appropriate to the way in which “Vertebrae” takes so complex, specific, and human an emotional situation and makes it as resonant as a simple love song. How it does this is complex. Part of it lies in the song’s lyrics, which still never fail to reveal something new to me with each listen. Their nearly literary complexity seems unrivaled in contemporary songwriting, hearkening instead to the decades-old masterworks of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and others. Yet “Vertebrae” could never have the resonance on paper as it does coming through your speakers. While some of this can be attributed to performance, the lyrics alone seem to lend themselves to musical expression, revealing a component of composition somehow distinct from lyricism; for the sake of argument, let’s call it songwriting. Christine Fellows, it occurred to me as I listened to “Vertebrae” for the umpteenth time, reconciles and intertwines lyricism and songwriting better than nearly anyone I can remember hearing.

This may seem a bizarre and meaningless honor with which to crown Fellows, and one based on a dubious distinction. But consider that lyrics alone cannot make a song. Lyrics are the words themselves, a song’s first step in saying what it has to say. Some music critics have praised songwriters like D.C. Berman of the Silver Jews for composing lyrics that would work as well on paper as they do in musical form. While I’m not sure this skill is at all admirable, it gets at what I’m thinking of: that simply writing some words on a piece of paper is one thing, but turning them into a song is often another. For lyrics to be a song, the words must be measured, structured, timed, and rhymed. In other words, they need to be tailored in a way that strictly literary genres like poetry and prose do not; in the act of songwriting, the lyricist makes sure his words are able to be sung and to sound good.

Further listening has revealed that Christine Fellows’ mastery of these two skills is not unique, I don’t intend to pass judgment on either one. Just because a piece of music is lacking in either songwriting or lyricism doesn’t necessarily make it deficient. Many awesomely vacant corporate pop songs, for example, manage to be melodic and sonically interesting despite idiotic lyrics (see: Cassie’s “Me & U,” still my favorite single from last year). And while Bob Dylan was often quite apt at songwriting, he crafted several great albums that strongly privileged lyricism instead (1976’s “Desire” comes to mind). Hip-hop, in fact, seems to have completely excised songwriting in favor of the purest lyricism possible. The vigorous demands that rap makes on language have birthed entire categories for assessment — flow, for example — that remain completely alien to lyricists working in rock and pop.

Christine Fellows, informed by a playful imagination and a sharp pop sensibility, has engaged songwriting and lyricism in inspired and novel ways that complement Paper Anniversary’s sonic quirks. Exploring these techniques within desolate lyrical themes, she has created an album filled with songs that are at once depressing and thrillingly rich. “Face Down, Feet First” ruptures and discontinues its lyrical images according to the whims of its melody, creating a disorienting but somehow lovely result. On “Souvenirs,” perhaps the highlight of the album, Fellows demands gifts from a traveling lover, turning his quest to please her into the raw material for a stunning and heartbreaking love song. “These souvenirs will weigh upon you ‘til you find something for everyone,” she sings, and the song ends with a series of revealing pleas: “Could you bring me back a coin rubbed smooth and run over by a passing truck?/Could you call me when you’re overhead so I can run out to the front lawn and wave you on?” Simply put, Christine Fellows has written songs whose lyrics are as literate as can be while remaining attentive to exactly what kind of literary medium a pop song should be. Here’s hoping her peers can keep up.