In songwriting – as, I am sure, in economics, manufacturing and all those other things that I don’t understand – the paradox of bounty is devaluation: a negative correlation between the opulence of the Muse and its consequence, but only at extreme settings. Up to a certain bend in the curve, a prolific consistency is the hallmark of an artist both inspired and disciplined, impassioned and professional. The Beatles, recall, did all of that in about six years. Exceed that rate at your own commercial peril. But when the frequency of releases is frantic and the content of each excessive and obsessive – call it the “Of Montreal Line” – we begin to care less, almost as an act of self-protection.
When the British-born New York songwriter Nellie McKay hit the scene in 2004 with her double-album debut Get away from Me, we seemed to be in the presence of one of that kind: someone who was poised to pummel us into indifference with the unrelenting abundance of her wit and musical resourcefulness. It is not even that she lacked discrimination and self-censure at the age of 21, that she was unable to tell her gems from her turds. There were no turds. Extract any random nine-song subset from Get away from Me, and it is likely to be just as good as (though quite different from) every other statistically possible nine-song subset – which is to say rather humiliatingly good, for those of us who dabble in the art.
Radically free and fluent with all the materials of songwriting and style, Get away from Me is expansive, ironic piano pop, and every bit a part of the lounge-and-cabaret revival of its time: genre- and persona-hopping, wickedly funny and socially perceptive, playfully produced, donning production and arrangement memes and tossing them off like wigs, flirting with all traditions, marrying none. Nothing is precious or pious. The appropriations – cabaret jazz, soul and disco, novelty rags, boogie-woogie, a little bossa, a little hip hop even, and all eras of show tunes – are never as reverent or as deep as what, say, Norah Jones was selling on the same streets at the same time. Get away from Me was attention-deficient sophisti-punk by comparison, almost more of a piece with Magnetic Fields but with many more chords than Stephen Merritt has ever managed to master.
It sure seemed that McKay was soon to be shunned for not shutting up, one of those: someone for whom the act of songwriting is something more than discipline, something more than passion, something more like pathology – a rare disorder, MacManus syndrome, otherwise known as Declanitis. Geoff Emerick produced Get away from Me. He is best-known for engineering every Beatles record from Revolver on, and for writing a great book about the experience; but the gig that might have best prepared him for an o’erflowing wunderkind like the young Nellie McKay was producing Elvis Costello’s masterpiece, Imperial Bedroom. Costello still writes great songs, you know; and I can name maybe three people I know who have even checked in in the last 20 years. Quarantined by his own loquacious genius.
McKay (famously pronounced Mc-EYE) did some theater work (Threepenny Opera, of course), struggled through creative conflicts with Columbia and finally self-released the self-produced Pretty Little Head in 2006: another double CD, but one that rocks considerably harder than Get away from Me. Since then, releases have been relatively scant, at least for someone I was preparing to get tired of fast. She recorded Obligatory Villagers in 2007, a challenging nine-song set of would-be show tunes that channels both the arrangement chops and the deceptively easygoing political savvy of Randy Newman. Next came a tribute to Doris Day in 2009, and then her last (to date) collection of originals: 2010’s Home Sweet Mobile Home, a typically smart and sardonic effort that grasps at the trends of the moment: indie rock, cutesy uke-pop and musical globalism. In sum, her catalogue is hardly paltry, but hardly prodigious.
In 2015, McKay released My Weekly Reader, in which she interprets gems of the ’60s. Some are well-known and loved: the album-opening reading of the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” the Small Faces classic “Itchycoo Park” and – finally arriving at Lennon and McCartney nine songs in – “If I Fell.” Along the way, she hits on Zappa, Herman’s Hermits, Moby Grape, Gerry & the Pacemakers and CSN&Y, among others. The record is, by definition and intent, a mixed bag, and its highlights tend to be its quieter moments – for example the lovely cover of the early Steve Miller Band oddity “Quicksilver Girl,” a song that nicks its bridge from “Taxman.” I hope and suspect that this thoroughly enjoyable collection of covers is just a way of clearing the decks for her next effusion of smarter-than-the-rest-of-us originals. It is time for her to get back on the prodigy track.
Nellie McKay, with special guest Timothy Dark, performs at the Towne Crier Café in Beacon on Friday, December 9 at 8:30 p.m. Tickets cost $30. The Towne Crier is located at 379 Main Street in Beacon. For tickets and additional information, visit www.townecrier.com.