Maria McKee: La Vita Nuova review – Show Me Heaven singer's high-drama alt-rock
After emerging as a member of cowpunk band Lone Justice in the early 80s, Maria McKee really made her name in the 90s with the kind of impassioned alt-rock that made stars of Liz Phair and Aimee Mann, and briefly powered a whole industry with the Lilith Fair movement in the second half of the decade. She wouldn’t reach those commercial heights again, but sustained a cult fandom into the 2000s, at which point she vanished. La Vita Nuova is her first album in 13 years, and comes on the back of dramatic changes in McKee’s personal life: the end of her marriage and her coming out as a “pansexual, polyamorous, gender-fluid dyke”.
McKee’s seventh album delves into her journey through her desires, seeking inspiration and allies, and confronting new challenges. “So much about her so informs the graceful story I’ve been seeking,” she exclaims on Courage; “I couldn’t have weathered this most tempestuous of seasons on my own,” she rhapsodises on I Should Have Looked Away. That phrasing should give some idea as to the tone of La Vita Nuova: it is courtly, grand, unabashedly dramatic. Right Down to the Heart of London cites Dickens and ruffles like a full Victorian skirt; there are numerous rhapsodic, string-laden crescendos, and McKee sings close enough to make you feel her breath on your ear. It’s a tough sell for anyone not already on board with McKee, especially since the songwriting is rarely persuasive enough to take the edge off the intensity.