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The Boston Phoenix Summering

k.d. lang's sun daze

By Josh Kun

AUGUST 14, 2000:  I have my own associations with summer. Going to Lifeguard Station 15 with my mother, my sister, and an orange boogie board with a black fiberglass bottom. We'd eat McDonald's out of the bag, quarter-pounders sweating from the heat, large fries sprinkled with salty granules of hot sand. I'd swivel my medium Coke into a flat plane of sand in front of my towel and watch beads of condensation slide down the side of the cup until they gathered into dark bubbles of mud on the beach.

I was born in the summer, which means summer birthdays: me in a green Lacoste shirt and Ocean Pacific corduroy shorts twirling my hair into knots, my grandmother giving me a pound of crisp bacon in place of a birthday cake. Go-karts and magic shows. Mononucleosis and soap operas in air-conditioned living rooms.

This is also true: no one I know has ever died in the summer. I've had grandparents die in the winter and friends die in the fall. My mother was diagnosed with cancer months after summer had ended.

So I used to look forward to summer. It was a time when everything made the sense it was supposed to. For a student, the break from the school year was something to rely on -- it brought release and emancipation but also order and stability, three months of nothingness with a clear beginning and end. Controlled liberation -- liberation with a discernible limit.

Now summer is when I fall apart, when my footing slips away, when my center stops holding and I swing out, farther and farther out, in circles of disintegration and dissolution. I still crave the sunshine and the particular summer way in which flies swarm over blades of baking grass. But now that sunshine and those flies also signal a personal paralysis that feels just as organic to the season as long weekends and folding chairs. And there's this: I flash to Joan Didion's decision to leave New York for Los Angeles in her great essay "Goodbye to All That," when she "could not even get dinner with any degree of certainty," hurt the ones she loved, and cried in elevators. "I had never before understood what 'despair' meant, and I am not sure that I understand now," Didion wrote, "but I understood that year." Didion was 28. So am I.

What I understand now is that summer has an underbelly, the defeat that is its built-in twin. Which is what is missing from k.d. lang's new CD Invincible Summer (Warner Bros.) -- Didion's despair, my defeat. It's not simply a summer album in that it's made for and released in summer; it's a summer album in that it tries, very hard, to be summer, to capture the archetype of summer in its sound. It is bright and buoyant at nearly every turn, swooning with bursts of crisp air and the glow of dry orange days.

But because lang is still new to Southern California, she has yet to realize the illusion -- or, better, the lie -- of her summer's invincibility. She is still working with the summer of an Anglo California myth that has since been spoiled for me -- the one that is endless, the one that has surfboards and good vibrations and harmonies that reach out for the warmth of a sun that can just as easily burn. "Sweet, sweet burn of sun and summer wind," she sings. This is lang's summer: she reads Camus, has flings, falls in love with an "extraordinary thing," swims the ocean as a love metaphor, connects "the beauty of desire" to "basking in the sun."

Invincible Summer conflates the summer with the hope of love, the whim of it, the possibility of it, the healing, balm-like passion of it. And it's hard not to join her, not to take solace in the way lang loses herself in it. In the album's cover photograph, the sun doesn't simply shine on her, it shines through her, its glare becoming part of her face and the shadows that obscure it. There is desperately poetic optimism here ("Only love can bring you down/Only love can bring you back around"). There is blinding bliss and gushing hyperbole. She knows how silly a line like "when we collide a cannon has exploded" sounds. She doesn't care.

I suppose there was a time when this kind of summer singing meant something to me, but not anymore. All I think of when I hear it is what it strives to ignore. That summer is also when love can die, when the person sitting next to you on the beach as fireworks fly over a seaside Ferris wheel can turn as cold as ocean water disappearing into white foam under a winter moon.

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