If only she were brunette, twentysomething multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter/vegan Nellie McKay would be the unchallenged apex of my (living) celebrity crush list. She’s clinging tenaciously to the upper rungs as it is, her status abetted by the fact that one’s attraction toward her need not be experienced or expressed as prurience. Much like Cole Porter, her quirky turns of phrase and insidiously catchy jazz chords sketch a feisty, urban milieu oozing refined sexuality. But she also cleverly dampers her erotics with youthful indignation, crafting what has sounded, until now, like a new American Songbook rife with cheeky topical bite—old-school cabaret wit filtered through new-school feminist irony (“I Wanna Get Married,” “Mother of Pearl”). She is, in other words, that rare, talented gal who can fiercely take up a cause while eschewing terminal sobriety; her on-stage jokes, even when intro-ing a ditty about animal torture-for-science (“Columbia Is Bleeding”), are goof-tastically sexy.
And while most prefer the seam-splitting diversity of her 2004 debut, Get Away from Me, or its even more fractured follow-up, Pretty Little Head, McKay tap-danced and ukulele’d her way into my modest fantasies with Obligatory Villagers—a prismatic comment on U.S. complacency with elbow room for Bob Dorough’s angularly perfect drawling (“They say we’re one big family/But I’m just duckin’ tangerines and lookin’ for my gun!”). It was a heady project practically begging for misinterpretation, but the matched conceptual and sonic density suggested an artist—a woman, really—refusing to untangle her humor-laden thoughts or time signature-flitting charts for anyone (or any man?). It was also the work of someone I could likely argue with until dawn about whether Paul or Carla was the better Bley, or spend long and lazy afternoons with, rewriting Gershwin ballads with PETA-approved lyrics (“I’ve got a crush on tofu…”). And when I’d glimpse the bottom of her cornucopia of confidence, I’d casually slip into conversation how much it bothered me that Sasha Frere-Jones never “got” her droll rhyme-busting.
Even with this detailed delusion in place, however, Home Sweet Mobile Home threatens to disrupt, if not overturn, our fictitious fling. I panicked with disappointment over “Bruise on the Sky,” the album opener; sifting through the layers of dumb-pop Fender Rhodes and crunchy guitar reveals an alarming shallowness—though it enforces how much an earlier win like “Oversure” accomplished just by diving skull-first into downtown jazz theater). Similarly, “Adios” is a stripped-down vocal-and-ukulele, name-dropping valediction, but plaintively bidding farewell to “the Frankenstein ladies” feels defeatist at track two. And though McKay and mama Robin Pappas handle the bulk of the production duties as usual, one can’t help but blame this drifting ethos on David Byrne’s “artistic guidance.” Who else but the xenophile behind the culture-hopping banality of Rei Momo and Everything That Happens… would send our croonerette to Jamaica to record ersatz-reggae?
The Caribbean numbers are weirdly inert; McKay appears uncharacteristically content to participate in rather than conquer the genre, and one can hear the ganja syncopation and farfisa sludge muting her irresistible idiosyncrasies. (The title “Absolute Elsewhere” should have been the LP’s most ruthlessly calibrated joke rather than melancholy nonsense.) She continues to deepen as a vocalist: When she dials back her typically rapid-fire delivery on “Caribbean Time” and “Coosada Blues” to fit the loping tempo of her authentic rock-steady backers, her breathiness is seductively freewheeling. But she’s singing from the diaphragm rather than the brain, as though she’s shelved the hidden glottal daggers that once dared us to cross her.
Ever the aesthetic firebrand, McKay has displayed a unique knack for staying afloat while treading tricky water in the past: “The Big One” is independent without sounding indie, and her Doris Day tribute Normal as Blueberry Pie is benign without ever being boring. The precedent set by these instructive balancing acts, however, makes her latest album impossible to accept as the straight-faced, if elusive, aural tour through triangle trade nations it longs to be. The smatterings of signature boy-hate throughout are second-rate (“Ya must be a man, ya got to be so sadistic”), swapping the flippant, take-no-prisoners specificity of “David” and “Pounce” for a wistful obliqueness. And it’s nearly tragic realizing that the most noticeable songs here are honest shots at Nawlins blues (“Dispossessed”) and Latin-infused Broadway (”¡Bodega!”); not three years ago, McKay was cultivating an aggressively protean individuality that would have blown raspberries (and augmented ninths) at the political pseudo-blues of “No Equality.” I still love ya, Nellie, but you’re no fun anymore. Does growing up always have to necessitate calming down?