Get Away From Me
he cover of Nellie McKay’s debut shows her standing, arms raised to the sky, in what looks like a red raincoat. Between her posture and the exuberant smile on her face, she looks like she’s hitting the climax of a song in a Broadway show or something. There is something slightly sardonic about the tilt of her jaw, though. Behind her is a graffiti-splattered wall, in the bottom left corner is a Parental Advisory sticker and above her head is the name of her album: Get Away From Me.
Personally, I think the record label should have let her go with Penis Envy or Black America, her original choices. Nevertheless, the cover of the record is important because it, like McKay (pronounced Mc-Kai, apparently) and this album, is a mess of contradictions.
Most of those contradictions that do not work are forgiven due to the simple facts that McKay is nineteen, this is her first album, and she’s ferociously talented. The decision to have her first album a double is, like Wilco’s Being There, a form over content one; each disc is half an hour long. It does attest to the stylistic sprawl here, though: one of the reasons McKay is so impressive as a songwriter is that she can turn out a piece of loungy quasi-jazz balladry like ‘Manhatten Avenue’ plus the paranoid, disco-inflected ‘Baby Watch Your Back’, the pseudo-rap ‘Sari’, and the relatively frenetic ‘Waiter’ and, crucially, have them all work.
What doesn’t work quite as well are some of the lyrics. The earliest composition here, ‘Won’t U Please B Nice’ is fine, with lines like “if we part I’ll eat your heart/so won’t you please be nice?” And all of the abovementioned songs are great as well, along with most of the rest of album, balancing McKay’s political concerns well against her sense of humour, youthful rage at most of the world, and her self-deprecation (another trait that’s more welcome in the young).
But there are three real clunkers, songs where McKay’s youthful fire and righteousness, admirable in the rest of the album, spills over into crushingly obvious polemics, and they bring the album down. My own politics are comfortably ensconced in the fairly far left (if I was American, I’d probably vote Nader), but I’ve also had the privilege in the last couple of years of attending an institution infamous for its radical inhabitants and political correctness and the inflexibility and intolerance ‘It’s A Pose’, ‘Respectable’ and ‘Clonie’ hint at make me cringe. The first especially: yes, it may be true to say that all wars and rapes were/are committed by men, but even if so, it then sounds as if ‘It’s A Pose’ says all males should be held responsible for same. And even aside from that I’m sick and tired of men being shoved into the twin roles of the pig and the fakely sincere SNAG. Or, put another way, the pig and the guy pretending he’s not a pig to get some tail. Does McKay really believe this? I hope not, but the fact that the two most positive songs here (‘The Dog Song’ and ‘Ding Dong’) deal with animals rather than people don’t give me hope; as the back of the album announces, Nellie McKay is a proud member of PETA. Fair enough; hopefully some of the cynicism about people will wear off with a little bit of age.
The rest of the album and what I’ve read of McKay gives me confidence that she’s smart and talented enough to avoid falling into that trap of reheated dogmatism that sadly characterizes the fringe elements of the left; even if she slips into that pose occasionally, her fully justified anger at the modern world and songwriting chops make her loveable and valuable anyway; we need more depictions of the terror of trying to reconcile life with the official version of America like ‘Waiter’ and ‘Toto Dies’, especially when the former is such a great song to boot. We need more sharp social commentary like ‘I Wanna Get Married’ and ‘Work Song’. We need more artists as honest and brave as McKay is, who include themselves in their salvo; listen to ‘Change The World’ and ‘Inner Peace’ and hear her admit to the same sins we all commit: self-importance, pettiness, the hundreds of small failures we’re all guilty of. That McKay has a dab hand with lyrics most of the time (“Jesus I love you/Frank, I love you too” is a personal favorite) helps immeasurably.
On purely musical grounds, Get Away From Me isn’t quite as perfect as it first seems either. It barely misses a nine, and the first disc is near-flawless. Those three clunkers are all on the second disc and weigh it down mightily. The other six tracks are just as good as disc one, but with a little judicious trimming this truly could have been a debut for the ages. The best songs here (‘Waiter’, ‘David’, ‘Baby Watch Your Back’, ‘Toto Dies’, ‘Change The World’) boast the type of intelligent writing and hooky glee pop always needs more of.
So ignore the Doris-Day-meets-Eminem descriptions you’re seeing; this is more like Kate Bush meets Phil Ochs, or at least that’s the level of promise that’s shown here. If McKay can grow and mature without losing her fire and versatility, she might wind up being one of the most significant artists of the 21st century.