Less revisited and revered than some of its contemporaries, The Walking is still relevant and revelatory.
Two singular Canadian artists made their major label debuts in 1988: Mary Margaret O’Hara’s first (and only) album, Miss America, came out on Virgin, and The Walking by Jane Siberry (her fourth album proper and first for Reprise Records). Both records dared to challenge the form and function of pop music, both faced consternation from their respective labels. Three decades on from their initial release, it’s clear that both albums were ahead of their time, but only O’Hara’s has been vaulted to true iconic status, earning the reclusive artist a Polaris Heritage Prize and re-examination from notable domestic and international press alike. It’s time Jane Siberry got her due.
The Walking was Siberry’s coming out album to the rest of the world (internationally on Reprise while Duke Street Records remained Siberry’s label in Canada). It also marked Siberry’s break from the new-wave pop style of No Borders Here from 1984 and 1985’s The Speckless Sky all the while retaining the avant-garde art-rock aesthetic that often had her compared to Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush. Though much was made at the length of The Walking’s eight tracks (the shortest 4:17, the longest 10:34), Siberry was no stranger to extended compositions; many people’s introduction to her music was the seven-plus minute-long “Mimi on the Beach”. It was the content and structure and not duration that set The Walking’s songs apart from the rest of Siberry’s catalogue.
The album’s Wikipedia entry calls it an “experimental film score studio album,” and though there was never an accompanying movie, it’s an apt description. The Walking‘s songs are built in acts (as opposed to chorus and verses) that follow loose narrative storylines and lyrically feature multiple voices. Epic opener “The White Tent the Raft” floats down a river through multiple settings and locales; coda “The Bird in the Gravel” is sung from the perspective of five different characters, demarcated in the lyric sheet like lines in a script. Packed between these colossal bookends are six densely packed vignettes that sway between delicate melodies with lilting singing to near cacophonic discord. Siberry’s arrangements, built with standard pop music instruments, sound at turns operatic, atmospheric, cinematic and orchestral, often all within a single song.
Domestic radio stations that championed Siberry’s earlier albums didn’t know what to do with songs like “The Lobby” and “Red High Heels”. They all but ignored The Walking until Siberry produced an abbreviated single version of “Ingrid And The Footman”. Still, at year’s end, The Walking was nowhere to be found on Toronto’s taste-making CFNY 102.1’s crowd-sourced best of 1988 list after No Borders Here came in at 10 for 1984 and The Speckless Sky peaked at 19 in 1985. It’s no fault of the casual pop music fan; The Walking is a thoroughly engrossing and cathartic listen. It’s easy to lose your bearings if you’re not paying attention to its many twists and turns. Still, like her friend Mary Margaret O’Hara’s 1988 opus, Jane Siberry’s The Walking is a paradigm of pop music experimentalism and artistic vision. The Walking is a record less travelled and revered, but as relevant and revelatory now as it was when initially released.