My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider (Stella/MVKA)
There’s an element of deception with this album, a feint or misdirection which can trip you up as a listener. Oh, it’s not that kind of album, you begin to say as you approach the halfway point, I read that wrong. But then, am I sure? Is she sure?
To be fair to Suzie Ungerleider, who doesn’t do sneaky – and who for the first time, after half a dozen records as Oh Susanna, is releasing under her own name - it’s probably appropriate to describe that as at least a healthy portion of self-deception on the part of a listener, as we assume from what seem like clear markers and begin to fill in the subtext.
After all, this is a record that begins quietly, that opens with wistfulness in reminiscence, that moves at most from dappled afternoon sun to a mellow dusk, and closes with an almost audible sigh. Drums appear on only half the tracks, and even though there are strings and guitars and keyboards and other vocalists, you could, as I did, play this at a reasonable volume and not distract or disturb people working nearby.
It’s set up to be an album of muted despondency and deflection, Ungerleider’s voice prominent but quiet, and the atmosphere coloured by the way things can fall short. Here are several songs that look back, whether to a youth mislaid or a past that was not understood at the time, and one song about the hidden postnatal travails of a woman who seems so in command. And there is a song that clearly shows that sadness is near, anticipated if not fully realised, and another that closes the record talking about how “you learn to bottle all your fears”.
However, Ungerleider navigates her way through them with delicacy and instead what we have is a set of gentleness that on occasion opens up to joy (the unabashed love in complicated times of Hearts; the detailed reminiscence and vivid emotion of what is effectively its prequel, Summer Baby), and at all times is touched with understanding.
Take for example North Star Sneakers, which takes a familiar story of a woman’s past of dreams and hopes unrealised, replaced by the more prosaic realities of a home, children, and lowered horizons. There’s the bite of cross-generational disappointment at the kind of guide ropes that supposedly are there to support but end up being barriers, but there’s also a recognition of what it is to build and sustain within those guide ropes.
Likewise, the tres Montréal story of Mount Royal, where a girl from the provincial west coast, new to this city, watches and admires a more sophisticated, more confident young woman “shooting pool down on Saint Laurent like she was shooting for the moon and the stars”. Out of place she may be, this gauche arrival, but not without a place if she chooses to be even half as brave in the lee of this force who “decided to quit school and said fuck it all, for you were shooting for the moon and the stars”.
As quietly presented as these songs are, the classic pop-era melodies mostly unadorned (with only Sweet Little Sparrow offering a full rock band sound and Ungerleider’s voice double-tracked) the subtleties begin to add up, whether they are the subtle elevations of Keri Latimer’s backing vocals, producer Jim Bryson’s underplayed keyboards, or the light touch of Bazil Donovan’s bass in Disappear (where Ungerleider’s voice is light but resolutely never going to be blown away) and Pumpkins.
If that is self-deception at the beginning, My Name Is Suzie Ungerleider shows that it can be satisfying being shown how wrong you are. For this is a deeply satisfying record.