Swinging Modern Sounds #24: A Magician of the Highest Degree


The millennium is not very old, it’s true, and yet today is the day on which I feel obliged to anoint a best song of the millennium, and to risk open debate on the subject, even though I recognize that these kinds of assertions are rash, and, in the main, unwarranted. But here it is, nonetheless. The best song of the millennium is “Mexican Blue,” by Jolie Holland, and it appears on her album Springtime Can Kill You, which was released on Anti Records in 2006. This would be the songwriter’s third album, after Catalpa (2003), which was sort of a demo-ish affair, and Escondida (2004), a more arranged effort. Prior to those albums, she was a member of the Be Good Tanyas, the folk revivalist band, in which she sang, on the first album, “Lakes of Pontchartrain” to startling effect, and a couple of other songs, before moving on to record on her own. The Be Good Tanyas’s first album, though very good, hinted at none of the genre-hopping of Jolie Holland’s solo work, which has roots not only in folk and Old Time, but also in New Orleans jazz, cabaret, soul, rock and roll, and experimental music. Her voice is almost unnaturally elastic, featuring a lonesome vibrato that seems to come out of the 1920s more than the twenty-first century. There is a mysteriousness to her point of view. Her compositions and her presence are slippery, hard to put your finger on. As if her songs are utterly resistant to the confessional mood, despite their sometimes straightforward lyrics—or as if the confessional mood is so buried in resistance and complication as to be impossible to apprehend in any unalloyed way for the lay person, who is otherwise used to a popular song whose job it is to be purgative or to describe the vicissitudes of the heart.

I bought Escondida because I liked Jolie Holland on “Lakes of Pontchartrain” and “The Littlest Birds,” from Blue Horse, the Be Good Tanyas album, and because I had read rapturous reviews of Holland’s solo work. And, indeed, I liked certain songs on Escondida, especially “Darlin’ Ukulele,” and “Amen,” although I found some of the genre exercises that filled out the album a little specialized. Since Escondida was not something that I put on the stereo relentlessly, I kind of dawdled on the next album, Springtime Can Kill You. Didn’t buy it immediately. Until a friend with particularly excellent taste (the friend who also turned me on to The Lemon of Pink, by the Books, another spectacularly good album), sent me “Mexican Blue.” I can’t even remember why she sent it to me, and I can’t remember why because no one remembers what’s happening on the day before they learn of the hurricane, that’s just some ordinary day, with trips to the dry cleaners, or to get the muffler is repaired; I confess I didn’t know if I was going to love “Mexican Blue,” that first time I played it, because I didn’t know if there was more to Jolie Holland than my admiration for her talent and for her caginess, her refusal to pander to the audience or to play up her spot in front of the lights. These are good things—talent, smarts—but these things had not yet enlightened me. And what I want, in the end, is that my heart should be compelled in some way, because like most people I am in the condition of almost routine absence from life, unable to see it as it is, and unable to have the requisite gratitude, and I am almost always noticing my own failures where my relationships are concerned, letting them pass me by until something dire comes along, until the hurricane comes along again, hovers briefly before alighting on the coast of me with a vengeance, whereupon I am watching shit blow out to sea, and it’s then that I see how loss is about the only feeling that I am absolutely certain I understand, and it’s only when I feel the loss is stirred up like the bilge in a basement that I start to feel again, and such was my experience of “Mexican Blue,” that it called up to me from the land of failure, the land of people who do nothing but fuck up with the ones they love, and who can’t seem to participate in the tiered Jell-O dessert of ordinary life, and almost instantly, upon hearing its unfurling of verses, I was reduced to some torrential downpour of loss, or a recognition of loss, and this has been my experience of the song since, which is, I suppose, four years of experience now, except for the times when I won’t allow myself to listen to it, because it is too painful to listen to, or because I just love it too much, and I don’t want to be made insulated, and don’t want to think that this much compassion (Jolie Holland’s kind of compassion, as evinced in the song) can somehow be expended by overuse. So I have had possession of this song four years or so, I have possessed the file as well as the album, and I have played it intermittently, because masterpieces should stay masterpieces, though as the song itself says: Everything is so much better when you are around.

You will be asking, what is so good about this song? You have described the effect upon yourself of the song, and you have described it in terms of an Atlantic storm (category four or category five), but you have not elucidated what is so good about the song itself, and now I mean to do just that, and first I will attempt to detail the musical portion of the composition, and then I will move on to touch upon the words. (Read the lyrics here.)

It’s a piano ballad, primarily, which means that it begins at the piano, played with utmost simplicity (I’ll try to sing it pure and easily), and I suppose this is Holland herself, because she is credited with piano on the album, and we get a couple of verses of just voice and piano, and the piano part is some modification of the “Let It Be” chord progression, the one banged out by the pianistically challenged Paul McCartney, and never once does the song deviate from this repetition of four chords, and I suspect, as with Holland’s guitar playing, that this repetition is owing to rudimentary skills, but that is fine; and yet if you are never once going to vary the progression of chords, you had better have some tricks up your sleeve as regards arrangements, some tricks in the area of dynamics, and one such example we have here, in “Mexican Blue,” is the glockenspiel, or maybe it’s a celeste, some bells at any rate, and they come in after the line They said they’d started to get worried about me, they were happy we had finally met, we had finally met. Also some drums, and some very tasteful electric guitar (a sort of twangy, Byrds-ish guitar part), and bass, these just blocking out the chord progression, really, the accompaniment is somewhere to go, in the same way that the drums come in on “Tangled Up In Blue.” And perhaps “Tangled Up In Blue” is one model for “Mexican Blue,” Dylan’s song being an epic about a relationship, one that, he once said, took him ten years to write. Similarly, here, the drums are just somewhere to go, but the glockenspiel is an adornment both austere and playful, in exactly the way that Holland’s Texan accent, with its ludicrous vowels, is both playful, and, somehow, ancient. In the end, since the music performs here in an admirably restrained way, there is mainly that voice, and the question, this time, is: is the voice going to put aside its performances, its Billie Holidayisms, which are a way to push back against the vulnerability of musical performance, in order to let us in? Yes, the reason why the storm comes to shore, and dashes to bits every hectare of resistance, is because she lets us in (I will try to sing it pure and easily), because she has a job with this composition, and the job is remedial repair of human apartness, and so she while she cannot go further than she goes, because there are limitations with this voice (she has make do with the vibrato, and with the little crevices and cracks in her instrument, because she will never be a gospel singer), and so it becomes a system of avowels, a system of proofs, of reparations, because of the singing, and that’s why the thing slays the listener, wracks his coast, and so let us now go back to the beginning again, and talk about the words.

You’re like a saint’s song to me, I’ll try to sing it pure and easily. You’re like a Mexican blue, so bright and clear and pale in the afternoon. Which means what? What is a saint’s song, and is it necessarily something both pure and easy? Let’s say that a saint’s song is one that has suffering as one of its features, one of its uppermost features; let’s say that a saint’s song, the one that Holland must sing now, the one involving reparations, has suffering as one of its features, and that in a saint’s song, the saint welcomes suffering, and welcomes the overcoming of suffering, and that is involved with reparations. And what then of that blue? The Mexican blue? I’m thinking of that pale blue of Mexican tiles, and what is so spectacular about that particular blue is that is has no aqua. The anodyne, self-loving, narcissistic American blue always has that aqua in it, but the Mexicans with their more restrained blue, know what suffering is, and know what loss is, and so before Holland is even to get into the specifics of the addressee in this love letter, we have the suffering of saints, and the heartache of our neighbor to the south, without any of that Club Med Caribbean blue, which is always about Margaritas and SPF15.

After which the addressee comes riding into the lyric on her bicycle. It’s no longer afternoon, now, night has fallen, and night when all the best love songs come to fruition, and here is the lover at night, and there are hydrangeas blooming, in moonlight, let’s imagine, which means that it is summer, and they are probably blue hydrangeas, not pink or white, because we are concerned here with the modalities of blue, and that means that there is a certain Ph balance to the alley in which Holland sees the addressee, because Ph determines the color of the hydrangea blossoms. What we further know is that the song “Mexican Blue” is dedicated to Samantha Parton, one of the members of the Be Good Tanyas, if in fact the Be Good Tanyas still exist, and that if the song is about friendship and love lost, love that the lyricist is attempting to repair, then it is natural that we might read into this dedication, and imagine that the song is about Sam Parton, though there is no real reason to go down this road, except for the sheer invention of interpretation, and because it is good to people a lyric with imagoes, phantastes, as the song itself does itself (There’s a mockingbird behind my house who is a magician of the highest degree), and who knows if they were lovers, and if Sam Parton is the lover invoked in this song, it doesn’t matter in the end, but it matters just that there is a lover, and that the lover, at least in the second half of the song is a woman, because what makes this song better than all the other love songs, is how comprehensive its apology, and how particular is its addressee; it’s not a general love song, a long song that means to describe all love, or to stand in for a love for the divine, as in the Gospel song, it’s about a particular person, and it lodges a particular apology, and so Sam Parton stands in for that person, until we know otherwise, and this addressee is wearing a corduroy jacket and riding a bike, and it’s probably one of those shitty three-speed bikes that no one will ever steal, and there’s a galloping dog beside the addressee, a mutt with a bandana, and that is enough to begin what is to come, this ballad of love and loss and a wish for reconciliation in the shape of a circle, an annular system (to use the David Foster Wallace formulation), and from the dog we go straight to a rhetorical approach that characterizes the middle of the song, which is to say the throwaway lines flanked by the heart-wrenching lines, and so we have When I was hungry you fed me/I don’t mean to suggest that I’m like Jesus Christ/Your light overwhelmed me/When I lay beside you sleepless in the night. If the second line of this quatrain were not here, the verse would not stick, even though I don’t mean to suggest that I’m like Jesus Christ is a classic Holland trope, the don’t-take-it-all-too-seriously-thing, though in fact all is serious here, all is as serious as it could possibly be, which is to say as serious as high art, as serious, to me, as Shelley, or Keats, and thus, the quatrain that follows, to which I alluded, the moment in which the piano ballad gives way to the band: And when you dreamed my guardian spirits appeared/And the moon stretched out across your little bed/They said they’d started to get worried about me/They were happy we had finally met/We had finally met. Which in turn suggests that Holland believes that she was a figment in the addressee’s dream, or that love itself is a figment of the dreamer’s dream, made even more poignant by the fact of Holland’s insomnia, and the smallness of the bed, and the smallness of the bed insures, for this exegete, the idea that the addressee is a woman throughout the song, because it is only women who will content themselves with the small bed, with the foam twin lofted high up on telephone books, with every possible possession mounded around the bed, and three more pillows than are humanly necessary, this is where love and sleeplessness take place and this is where the drums and the electric guitar come in.

The middle section of the song, which I will now quote in its entirety because to do less would be disservice (A mysterious bird flies away/Seemed to be calling your name/And bounced off the top of a towering pine/And vanished in the drizzling rain/
There’s a mockingbird behind my house/Who is a magician of the highest degree
And I swear I heard him rip the world apart/And sew it back again with his fiery melody, melody),
is the most symbolically potent portion of the composition, is perhaps the content of the dream of the semi-sleep of Holland, the insomniac lover, as she dozes in the little bed, or is perhaps her idea of the dreams of her lover, and the birds here are classical birds, birds as auguries, the future foretold in the flight of birds, and initially this bird is mysterious, and because I have already used mysterious to describe Holland herself, perhaps this bird is Holland, as indeed all figments in dreams are the self, lets say that this is Holland, Holland falling out of the bed of her lover, Holland falling out of the Be Good Tanyas, falling away from her friendship with Parton, who is then herself the mockingbird of the second half, the magician of the highest degree, and what does it mean to be so accomplished in the black arts; well, one thing we confidently assert in the context of song is that the highest of all arts, in the dream of “Mexican Blue,” is that music itself is the highest of arts, and so the mockingbird, with its thousand voices, is a musician of the highest degree, who can rip the world apart, as Jesus Christ (to use the thrown away invocation of the first verse), is said to have done at the moment of his ascension, sewing it back together with his fiery melody, I can’t put into words how beautiful I think this section of the song is, especially the performance, the vocal, it’s just as beautiful as anything I have ever heard, and it is right before Holland gets into the meat of her apology, but before she does so, she offers this dream, and says, in effect, that the dream of music is the one thing that can sew up our disaffiliations, this song, and when she says and what she’s saying is that the best songs are the night songs, the love songs of the night, and whereas she runs out of breath at the end of the prior verse, when she sings we had finally met, it’s out of sadness, perhaps, but on this verse she seems to understand how she is saying the thing that needs to be said in the richest way, the most artful way, so that when she says I swear I heard him rip the world apart and sew it back again with his fiery melody, and the drummer does one of his very few rolls, it is because this is the first true way to say what has to be said, which is also what comes next, in it’s most direct form: When you were mad at me I didn’t care/And I just loved you all the same/And I waited for the wind to push the hurricane/Out to sea, and the sun could shine again.

What was the crime committed? Oh come on, you have done so many horrible things, and I have done so many horrible things. Sometimes it’s amazing to me that I can get up and walk to the door, face the day, there is so much to be remorseful for, and I would argue, in the context of “Mexican Blue,” that one can only continue to perform in a daily way because one is so good at forgetting, because humankind is the forgetting animal, because otherwise it would all be impossible, just even going to buy a bag of pretzels at the corner market would be impossible, because of all the horrors committed in this life, just the horrors of recent weeks are enough to put one to bed for months, and yet there is something we can do for one another, we can forgive one another, and we can lodge our apologies in the hope of this forgiveness, and when Holland says I waited for the wind to push the hurricane out to sea, she is doing just this, she is apologizing and living in the hope of forgiveness, and what more loving thing can one broken and underperforming individual do for another but offer this gift of forgiveness? In the subsequent lines she twice repeats the line Everything is so much better when you’re around, and it could be a specific person of course, the specific addressee, but it could also be a reiteration of the importance of community, and in this verse Holland departs from the melody and moves up some in her range, a third or a fourth, in order to sing the lines Just don’t float so high you drift away/Stand tall, with your feet on the ground/I love your songs, I love your sound/Everything is so much  better when you’re around. And this is usually the spot in hearing “Mexican Blue” when I am helpless before it, and it’s because I can’t believe how generous the song is, and how loving, and how clearly it is attempting to say things in the context of the song that Holland could not say to the addressee before, in plain, unvarnished words, and you can imagine that perhaps it took weeks to sing these lines, and to sing them with the right emphasis, which is to say the selflessness required, in order to say This is my gift, I’m giving you this song, at which point the song goes back into the symbolic realm of opals and amethysts, and back into the bed: I’ll remember all your dreams and the mysteries/You have borne in your crystalline soul/That you sing from your golden throat/That you shine from your sparkling eyes/That you feel from the goddess in your thighs.

Was it just an argument, or a series of disagreements between people who cared about one another? Or was it something else that failed between them? Were they lovers once, who found themselves in some intimate engagement that they weren’t ready for? What we know for certain is that the lovers of the past carry away a hunk of us, some gristle or sinew, when they depart in their misery and disconsolation, and if we can repair the loss we are restored, somehow, to a somewhat more perfect wholeness otherwise unrecaptured, and so there’s a reason to do it, to go through the extremely demanding reunion, the slightly shameful and humbling reunion, with all the pain attendant thereupon, and “Mexican Blue” does this, it carries us back to the lost person and brings about the uncomfortable repair, and when it returns to its beginning, when it repeats the first verse at the end, it is, as I’ve said circular, feminine, annular, and in the process it asserts the necessity of returning to this place of apology, because the job is never done, and the addressee is always in danger of running off again, or there is some other addressee, and we are ever readying ourselves to speak anew the truth of love and loss, even if we don’t want to, and recoil from it, and this is why “Mexican Blue” is the best song of the millennium, because it speaks this unpalatable truth, and in this unpalatable truth the individual is not larger than life, the performer is just another fuckup, the individual is more modest than we would prefer for our heroes to be, and so the truth is unpalatable and involves deflation, so it seems to this exegete, and I admire this kind of truth a great deal, and I admire the kind of artist who collects these notions (and it looks like she did it again, by the way, on “Mexico City,” from The Living and the Dead), and all the cultural flotsam in the world is opposed to this kind of thing, and that’s part of why this kind of thing is so important.

Here’s a more direct way of saying it: I wish someone cared enough about me to write a song like this about me. A song with this much thoughtfulness and generosity. It really is the rarest of things.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →