Jelena Ana Milcactic, recorded when Merrill was sixty-nine years old, is a semi-autobiograpical almost-concept album that covers a fairly large amount of aesthetic ground with a singular purpose. The opening duo of tracks, entirely Helenless, set the stage for an album on such a large scale that the immediate transition to a gently swinging "Long, Long Ago" is somewhat jarring and perhaps disconcerting to those expecting (or hoping) that the previous songs were harbingers of a total departure from the sounds she made her name on. But those are here to provide a backdrop of history and urgency against which the domesticity and longing of the remaining songs plays out. There is something admirable, even brave, in the way the album (though the instrumentals are dusted with [some might say well-earned] dissonance) never shies away from traditional concepts of beauty, even sentimentality, despite these having become vessels for and synonymous with the abhorrently gauche and nauseatingly insincere. Batting cleanup, (Goddess forgive me for a sporting metaphor) her cover of Judy Collins' "My Father" is the embodiment of this: deeply nostalgic and , the potential remains at all times for the song dissolving into that sort of smug sub-Broadway lounge schlock that causes anyone with a discerning ear to start gnawing their arms off if exposure lasts longer than a minute, yet it retains a stately fragility throughout its seven minutes. The rest of the songs (save the short, blaring instrumental interlude "Tamac," which sounds like the AACM and some crumhorns had a baby in the Mediterranean) alternates between the usual vocal jazz and a sort of folk-based pre-rock pop: too serious for easy-listening, too subdued to be showtunes, and too not repulsive to be Ken Burns soundtracks, even if placing versions of "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Motherless Child" one track apart is a questionable move.) The voice remains as subtle and supple as ever, hardly touched by the ravages of time yet still possessing that insight only age can provide, or so they say. *shifty eyes*
Sitting beside my nana's fire, drinking peppermint tea and reading Algernon Blackwood (and somehow I'm still available, ladies and others!) an odd thought occurred to me: this music, for all its theatrical artifice, acts oddly like folk music in at least one respect: as a stream for others to reinterpret, to purloin its form and replace its essence with irony or spite or transmogrify into fantastic shapes while remaining essentially unharmed. It is an undiluted version of that mixture of extravagantly exhausted sighs and crumbling grandeur that powers Follies and certain of Stephin Merritt's finest tunes ("Busby Berkeley Dreams," "I've Got New York.") That beyond there once existed another, purer aesthetic distillation or semi-conscious formulation that the performances of Jelena themselves draw from is also undeniable, though the source is by definition effervescent and now unknowable, if it wasn't a conscious put-on or myth itself. Holy fuck, I'm a pretentious dick. Seriously, what went wrong to allow me to believe that this sort of dribble is ever acceptable? Fuck that.
But not the album. It is super-excellent. Perhaps even good enough that the audience (all one of you) will forgive the magnitude of my intense stupidity.
(And while I obviously hate all musicians and labels and totally oppose spending money on CDs, apparently you can get this new on Amazon for seven bucks, so definitely do so if you're so inclined.)