February 2013

Elevator Into the SkyA Poetic Excursion into Insanity

Alectrona Records
Format: CD

Musical Performance

Sound Quality

Overall Enjoyment

Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was the United States' most famous confessional poet, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1967. She had severe mental illness for most of her short life (which she ended by suicide), and she wrote of her suicidal tendencies, her battle against depression, and her efforts to come to grips with God. Her verses are so full of rich and vibrant impressions that it is no wonder to find that Elevator into the Sky is not the first time her poetry has been set to music.

Toward the end of her life, Sexton herself would read poetry accompanied by a jazz-rock ensemble called Her Kind, named after one of her better-known poems. Peter Gabriel has written an elegy to her ("Mercy Street"), while classical composers such as Roger Ames have set her verse to music (Requiem for Our Time). Jazz/cabaret performer Laila Salins did a traveling show about her called InSomnia/InSexton and has included songs from that performance piece on Elevator Into the Sky.

Salins performs with an ensemble that includes piano, bass, drums, soprano and alto saxophone, clarinet, flute, guitar, laouto, laoutar, percussion, and pandieru, though not all of these instruments are used at the same time. At the center of it all is Salins's voice, sometimes beautiful, often radiant, occasionally raw and animalistic -- whatever is needed to get the meaning of the text across. As a performer, Salins has an impressive three-octave range, while her style of composition draws in jazz, folk, art song, cabaret/theater, and classical chamber music for an ultimate musical mash full of drama and depth.

The opening, "Starry Night," sets the stage like a ghostly and macabre pavane.

Oh starry starry night! This is how I want to die:
Into that rushing beast of the night, sucked up by that great dragon,
To split from my life with no flag, no belly, no cry.

"Music Swims Back to Me" is probably my favorite, the most intimate and chilling picture of insanity I can remember hearing.

They lock me in this chair at 8 a.m. and there are no signs to tell the way,
Just the radio beating to itself and the song that remembers more than I.

As for Sexton's obsession with God, there's this from "The Fury of God's Goodbye":

One day He tipped His top hat and walked out of the room, ending the argument.
He stomped off saying: I don't give guarantees.

And later in the same poem:

I'd won the battle but like a forsaken explorer, I'd lost my map.

As you might have gathered, this is not a sing-along disc or even much of a toe-tapper. It is challenging, full of searing images and complicated ideas made simple, if quixotic, by being seen through the eyes of madness. It is richly recorded in sound that has wonderful presence but could have been, for me, a bit more transparent in order to be perfect. If you can stick with it, Elevator into the Sky could prove to be the most passionate, profound, and original music you'll hear this year.

Be sure to listen to: "The Fury of Sundays" closes the disc, and at its beginning you can hear a blues vamp that's the closest thing to a finger snapper on this disc. Salins sings in her best Cleo Laine lusty low range while the piano adds acerbic comments. It's worth waiting for. Don't stop listening before this finale happens.

. . . Rad Bennett