Mary Margaret O’Hara–Miss America

In 1984, Mary Margaret O’Hara entered a recording studio to start work on her debut album for Virgin.

She’d been paired with Andy Partridge, from XTC, as her producer.

It did not go well.

One day after their first meeting in the studio, he was let go.

You can read the details here, but suffice to say that Partridge felt O’Hara was not of sound mind.

Others have contended that he just didn’t get what O’Hara was trying to do in terms of rhythms.

Whatever the case, for the next few years, O’Hara continued working on what would become Miss America, doing some sessions with Joe Boyd in ’84 before Michael Brook came on board to remix existing material and help produce some new recordings.

Released in 1988 (apparently with a track selection determined by Virgin, which had by this point essentially soured greatly on O’Hara), the album was greeted with critical acclaim, but meager sales.

This is the only fully realized studio album that O’Hara has made to date (she also released a Christmas EP and a soundtrack), and it is kind of easy to understand why, given its long fruition.

But it is also frustrating in that it is such a fascinating and compelling listen, with a range of stylistic moods from zonked out Disney animated whimsy to 2 a.m. nightclub fare to a harrowing song about a year in music that, at times, sounds almost feral and seems like a rigid middle digit extended to Virgin and anyone who’d compromise O’Hara’s vision.

It’s kinetic, chaotic, calming, and exhilarating, but certainly not for all tastes, and even if you are fairly unorthodox and open in your musical tastes, you may find at least one or two tracks difficult or grating.

Still, if you like adventurous, restless, high wire artistry, if you like songs that have off kilter tempos and odd little filigrees, if you like lyrics that straddle the line between enigmatic and evocative, and you like vocalists who sound like they are feeling their way through the song as if it were unfolding in the moment, you’ll find much to love about Miss America.

And if you don’t, maybe you’re Andy Partridge or you worked for Virgin.

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