Driving home one evening, I recalled it had been about a month and a half since I’d stumbled across Sibylle Baier’s lost 1970s gem Colour Green. I listened with earphones that first time. But now, in the velvet darkness of the car, with barely another vehicle on the road, it was time to explore how Colour Green could transform space.
The effect proved both evocative and surprising: Baier’s songs seemed to fill the space as much as they revealed a gaping void as bottomless as her melancholy. As the tracks played, the quietness of my tiny Toyota seemed to swell beyond its tangible proportions. Baier’s soft, melancholic voice and guitar, reminiscent of Nick Drake, entranced me. Her songs transported me to the sepia-toned backdrops of her life: wintry domestic evenings, road trips to the shore, distant hillsides. I had spent some time away from the album, but now I was rediscovering each delicate note in a quiet, malleable environment, in which the songs could fully unfurl like crisp leaves slowly flattening between the pages of a book.
Baier’s compositions are cyclical. Refrains melt into verses. Songs bleed sadly into each other like watercolors running down paper. The fourteen pieces unravel as a singular composition, a long, winding exploration of the young woman’s life. Baier’s angelic vocals and acoustic technique navigate ghostly arpeggios and seamless key changes in a seesaw rhythm. The songs are intimate. Her lyrical style mimics the cyclical pattern of her sound; she releases each syllable in a rolling motion, some clauses spilling over their lines and reinforcing the song’s circular movement. This effect becomes particularly noticeable in “The End,” when she leaves the word end hanging, tacking on an extraneous vowel to round out the word and produce a lingering effect. Baier clings to the word’s finish with the same heartbroken hesitation that she conveys throughout the song, as she struggles to grasp the painful reality of a failed relationship. Even as she admits in the refrain: “It’s the end, friend of mine,” she holds fast to the notion that “life is short but love is old.” Within the circular rhythms of the notes, Baier swings, distraught, between grief and disbelief.
Many of Baier’s lyrics employ internal rhymes and repetition to maintain this pendular rhythm. In “I Lost Something in the Hills,” Baier reflects: “Oh what images return oh I yearn/ for the roots of the woods/ that origin of all my strong and strange moods.” For the first seven syllables, her voice carries the weight of deep-set nostalgia in a monotonous tone reminiscent of a medieval church choir hymn. Her rhythmic utterance of the words, coupled with the internal rhyming scheme, conveys a circular motion that transports the listener through the gloomy, atmospheric space to which she seeks return throughout the lines of the song. In “Softly,” markedly more buoyant but still reflective, Baier’s experiments with repetition and pendular rhythms become fully realized within the song’s reiterated refrain, sung in syncopation. She playfully swings between keys throughout the song in a jazz-esque dance.
This particular track, as well as the whimsical numbers “William” and “Wim,” evoke Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Drake and Baier recorded remarkably similar albums in the early 1970s; Drake’s a skeletal, stripped-down sound that diverged from his earlier work, Baier’s a series of reel-to-reel tapes recorded from home over the course of three years. While their contemporaries produced music with full, often horn-heavy instrumentation, Drake and Baier composed acoustic songs that transcended their own cultural-historical context, achieving a sense of timelessness. In Baier’s case, the belated release of Colour Green in 2006 emphasizes the album’s enduring quality.
Baier delicately bends syllables and plucks threadbare melodies that paint the vivid motifs of Colour Green. The songs are a collection of melancholic snapshots, quotidian events colored by a sweeping existential sadness. Many of Baier’s lyrics are rooted in domestic scenes. A working woman slices bread for her children; glimpses of a wintry atmosphere, a “painful February mood,” emerge above the watery surface of the lyrics. A lover sitting in his “lazy chair” asks Baier “what sorrow you bear” as she sheds tears after a harrowing workday. Interspersed between the lines of domestic imagery are small anecdotes of Baier’s travels and revelations as a young woman. In “Remember the Day,” she speaks of a moment in her life when she hovered on the brink of suicide, “considering if one shouldn’t die or if one should,” contrasting this dark contemplation with a stark image of a midday sun. Suddenly, as she recalls mustering the will to “just buy some food,” the song’s rhythm shifts and gathers tempo. She recounts finding herself heading in an unexpected direction toward Genoa, Italy. “Did you ever drive in a moonstruck constitution/ and find to reach a seaport and down there is a solution/ you should if you could,” she tells the listener. By the shore, where “there simply was the water’s smell and remoteness,” she retrieves herself, reflected in the waves of the “old cold ocean.” The visual motifs of a wintry, domestic life and thematic iterations of loss, self-discovery and nostalgic reflection unravel in a cyclical fashion reinforced by her ghostly vocals and acoustic technique.
The most evocative imagery of the album appears in “Elliott.” Long, round phrases with oddly placed emphasis unfurl monotonously from her lips. The only pause in the refrain occurs after the first three words, creating the impression that Baier’s sentences possess little to no punctuation. “I grow old/ I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled says Elliott.” Her use of the present tense thrusts the listener into the midst of the subject’s sad contemplation. The song revels in the melancholy persistent throughout the entire album: “Gayly clad sadness is a radical quantity says Elliott/ sadness is a long brown ribbon says he/ sadness is beautiful.” The singular image of the ribbon, haunting and mesmerizing, mimics the greater aura of the album in a micro moment of self-reflexivity.
Baier’s poetic command of language and skillful rendering of atmosphere transports the listener through the strange and dark spaces of her life. Within haunting lines depicting the grayness of existence, she provides glimmers of revelation that enlighten and cast meaning. Colour Green unravels as a manifestation of nostalgia, timeless and heartbreaking, a testament to the spiritual fortitude of a woman perpetually “seeking for return.”
Guest post by Elizabeth Hopkins.
Elizabeth Hopkins is a writer, artist, and part-time anthropologist. In her free time she likes to take photographs, eat delicious food, and jam out to good tunes, among many other things. A graduate of Skidmore College, Elizabeth is a Program Coordinator at the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, where she works collaboratively to advance environmental conservation and stewardship.