Mary Margaret O’Hara’s debut album, Miss America, is a one-off in a literal sense.
Released in 1988 by Virgin, four years after the bulk of the recording had been completed, Miss America remains O’Hara’s only studio album proper. Eleven songs and 44 minutes long, it basically carries the entire O’Hara cult (mythos, even) on its back. Fortunately, it’s strong enough the bear the weight.
O’Hara’s sound remains singular. It doesn’t sound like 1983 or ’84, when it was recorded, or 1988, when it was released, or any time at all, really. She and her band went down avenues that had thitherto been unexplored by any musician, and no one has since followed her down, for all that she’s been cited as an inspiration by musicians including Kristin Hersh, Tanya Donelly, Perfume Genius, Jeff Buckley, Michael Stipe and that despicable bigoted old fool Morrissey.
Circumstances surrounding the making of Miss America remain a little misty. Production is credited to guitarist Michael Brook, but Andy Partridge from XTC is known to have worked on the record briefly. Some versions of the story have him leaving after a day, finding O’Hara too difficult to work with; others have her shit-canning him and engineer John Leckie because Partridge disparaged her band and Leckie was a follower of Rajneesh, of which O’Hara disapproved. Joe Boyd has said that most of the tracks were recorded and co-produced by him at Rockfield Studios in Wales in 1984 (he doesn’t say whether the co-producers were O’Hara, Brook or both).
What we do know for sure is that Virgin didn’t like it, insisting that more songs be written and recorded, and that the record’s release was delayed for years. But while Miss America is undoubtedly unusual, it’s hard to imagine that the finished record was light years away from the demos, or that those demos hadn’t displayed O’Hara’s unorthodox vocals. Why Virgin ever thought that O’Hara had cheated them out of a hit by going all strange on them, God only knows.
Listening to Miss America, it is hard to tear yourself away from the vocal performances that so aggrieved Virgin. Van Morrison is the usually cited point of comparison, and there’s something to that; both singers are interested in getting past literal semantic meaning. Both enjoy playing with the sound of words, altering stress and rhythm, pushing the beat as far as they can until the vocal almost sounds unmoored from the music that surrounds them. Both singers love to play in what would usually be the space between lines.
Unlike the jazzy Morrison, who reportedly sings live as the band plays, O’Hara’s method was to wait until the backing track had been recorded to her satisfaction – and the band’s playing throughout is impressive; superhumanly clean and precise – and then riff on her written melodies and lyrics. No take recreated the previous one. Each song was a process of discovery. On her most febrile performances (Year in Song, say), it’s possible to hear her stumbling on a new idea that she can work with for a few bars (her rasped “I’m not ready to go under”; the metamorphosis of “joy is the aim” to “is the aim, eh, joy?”; “pretty soon too much”). Even compared to Van Morrison at his most free, it’s questing, visionary stuff, utterly removed from the usual work of the popular-music singer.
While her more exploratory performances may be the defining element of her artistry, there are several lovely country-torch songs at the record’s still heart, songs that Patsy Cline or late-’80s kd lang could have recorded: Dear Darling, Keeping You in Mind and You Will Be Loved Again. It’s the play of these songs against the tougher material – My Friends Have, Year in Song and the deathless, wonderful Body’s in Trouble, which I must have listened to 15 times in the couple of days I was writing this – that makes Miss America such a three-dimensional classic, and that explains the ardour of her fans, who may have given up expecting O’Hara to make another record, but probably haven’t quite given up hope.