Underneath the bright package of her girlish voice and sweet pop sound, Jane Siberry's songs are like the birthday surprise that you turn every which way wondering, "What is it?" Her compositions aren't so much songs as sonic sculptures stuffed with clusters of abstract images instead of lyrics, melodies that double or triple, and crazy rhythms that are likely to change three or four times in five minutes. Texture rules over narrative. Stories emerge, but the particulars are left out -- you have to guess the setting and the characters. She's so strange that to describe her, people tend to reach for comparisons. Naturally, for any female singer-songwriter (especially one from Toronto), Joni Mitchell looms large in the literature. But comparisons are always misleading: Siberry recalls other artists not because she sounds like them but because she goes her own way.

Originality isn't always instantly appealing, and Siberry's private references and idiosyncratic song structures may seem irritating or pretentious. But once you fall down the rabbit hole and pick up the vocabulary, there's a wonderland to behold. I first fell a couple of years ago when I heard No Borders Here, her second album and the first to be released in the States. I couldn't get over the cozy coexistence of murky tunes like "You Don't Need," which sent me to my world atlas to look up Merthyr Tydfil and Beddgelert, and the Farfisa-fied sprechstimme saga "Mimi on the Beach" with a straightforward love song ("Follow Me") and the brainy three-chord rave-up "Symmetry." The Speckless Sky (Open Air) goes even farther in using synth-sleek pop sounds to cloak far-from-top-40 metaphysical speculations. I doubt if Siberry consciously thought about "post-modern literary strategies" while fiddling at the Fairlight, but she's constantly deconstructing songs as she's singing them and resorting to dry cartoon-strip jargon that would make Roland Barthes giggle, as on "Map of the World (Part III)" when she mentions "a stick-figure with briefcase and a business suit and tie" who "walks across the perfect lawn," and some perky TV-jingle voices inquire "You mean the perfect-perfect-perfect lawn?"

I didn't grasp the full extent of Siberry's weirdness until I saw her at the Bottom Line last week. A sharp-nosed schoolgirl wearing a big black bonnet wrapped with a pink scarf, she skipped the usual ice-breaking gestures and opened with "Vladimir Vladimir," a simple three-part death-and-resurrection fantasy from the new album. At first she and her two backup singer-dancers seemed creepy; their aloofness and we're-in-the-video posing seemed insanely inappropriate. But her lack of concession to the normal way of doing pop became compelling and finally awesome. She sang the most hermetic lyrics as blithely as if crooning "You Are My Sunshine" and staged several songs as trippy production numbers, lapsing into speech unexpectedly and punctuating certain baroque asides with a special yellow spotlight. The one that blew my mind was "Extra Executives," a song about meeting a jerk at a party ("His card says executive/But it mumbles just a salesman") that includes a spoken rap about grouper fish. In concert, Siberry extended the rap into a reminiscence of the Club Med trip where she first encountered grouper fish in a glass bottom boat, which somehow led into a full-blown rendition of -- what else? -- Petula Clark's "Don't Sleep in the Subway." When she came out to do an encore, though, Siberry just sat on the floor with an acoustic guitar and picked out "The Taxi Ride," the stunning break-up ballad that closes her new album. The most emotionally direct moment of the evening, it established Jane Siberry as one of those rare artists who can crack brains and break hearts at the same time.

Village Voice, June 10, 1986