Singer-songwriter albums often foreground the songs, to the extent that there is more or less nothing to distinguish the way they are performed or recorded from any other singer-songwriter album. Some appropriate, accomplished guitar work, some appropriate, accomplished vocals, some lyrics, and some melodies. When the writing itself reproduces established conventions around melodic narrative and lyrical content, the result is music so streamlined and smooth that it completely fails to ruffle my hair as it whizzes past. Lisa Germano’s album No Elephants, her last for six years now, does not suffer from such faults.
Lyrically it’s very imaginative. ‘Ruminants’ gets to its ungulate symbols via the observation that with so much that’s hard to stomach in the world, four stomachs would be handy. Phrases are sometimes truncated or turned around so that they come out in unpredictable ways. But more importantly, there’s thematic material here, which is explored progressively, from a variety of angles, throughout the album. This doesn’t just apply to lyrical motifs, either: musical material and production techniques recur, sometimes in echoes, and sometimes more explicitly, making the album unmistakably a complete and singular utterance, rather than simply a collection.
Simple piano chords and textural violin work structure the songs in a restrained way – particularly restrained, when you remember that Germano is a successful touring and session violinist, who has worked with some of the best known names in music. There is a similar restraint in her use of melodic and harmonic materials. This is a schooled and experienced musician, but her chord sequences are rigorously straightforward and simple. Again, this is not a reproduction of the usually fallacious singer-songwriter trope that the songs should ‘stand on their own’, as though one particular expression of universally recognisable emotional experiences will magically distinguish itself from all others, if only it can be presented with sufficient ‘authenticity’. Instead, these songs represent perceptively exact distillations of the ideas and atmospheres called for by the bigger picture.
Various bits and pieces of percussion and electronically sourced sounds fill out the arrangements, although even at their densest, they’re pretty spare. Here also, everything is present for a reason. The album is not what I’d call a story, but it has an affective narrative – it is an exploration of its themes, a meditation on them, but not one with an obvious arc or clear conclusions. Germano’s vocal delivery is fragile and nuanced, floating through her harmonies to produce delicately eerie atmospheres, pale glimmerings of ambiguity and unease. A recurring sound source is the mobile phone, with vibration alerts and GSM audio interference cropping up throughout the record. Although Germano certainly has something to say about the ways that technology can inhibit social connections, there doesn’t seem to be any particular comment implicit in this, and the sounds are deployed creatively, integral elements of the arrangements rather than gimmicks. After a few listens I forgot their origins.
There are elements of anxiety and disquiet in this record, and it sometimes deals with challenging material, but it is largely a calm and thoughtful thing. It is also a very present album, collapsing the distance between performer and listener, addressing itself very intimately to its audience. I’ve spent a great deal of time with it over the past few months, sometimes attending to it very closely, and sometimes allowing it to set the atmosphere while I think about something else. Put to either use it has been consistently thought-provoking, the sort of work that I never feel I’ve gotten to the bottom of. And for all its astringency, it’s a very pretty record, with an absorbing, subtly shaded beauty.