“All my life is based on fantasy,” Marnie Stern announces at the start of “Proof of Life,” and it sounds like she might have a point. Here is a woman whose songs usually erupt into firestorms of guitar, whose vocals are always pitch-shifted to sound like a chorus of angry fairies; a woman who, indeed, tends to rely on the partial fantasies of (among others) virtuosic musicianship and electronic signal processing. In this song, however, Stern sings in her natural voice, accompanied primarily by a piano; in the flow of her last album, The Chronicles of Marnia, the quiet arrives so jarringly that you know the circumstances are heavy even before she says a word. The din pared down, her voice unvarnished and raw, Stern begins sorting through some serious doubts about her creative work and the life it props up.
At first she is directionless, paralyzed by the notion that her goals and values are illusory. “All the gods, they’ve stopped talking to me, / and I cannot find it,” she says, asking someone—the gods?—to “give me a sign.” One imagines her as a shattered mythic hero, scanning the auspices of birds flying by for any hint of wisdom. Crucially, she’s not looking to herself for help: she seems certain the “sign” will come from without, enough so to ignore her own will. “I am nothing,” she chants throughout the song, sounding determined to make herself believe. “I am no one.”
What sign is she looking for? What is the “it” she cannot find? The song is called “Proof of Life,” but Stern doesn’t seem to be looking for evidence of her existence so much as justification for its course. In interviews she has spoken of realizing that her life in music may never mean significant financial rewards or long-term security, so it is reasonable to hear “Proof of Life” as a way of wondering whether the labors of full-time musicianship are worth it. Picture this crisis of faith happening in some obscure hotel room, late at night in the midst of a money-losing touring run: “I am running out of energy,” she laments. “I’m searching but there’s so much I can’t see.”
We also know that “Proof of Life” was a difficult song for Stern to make. The idea of recording without her customary vocal effects, and with fewer layers of careening guitars, was not hers but her producer’s; she acceded, but not without a struggle. (“Maybe it’s just that I don’t like my voice,” she mused to one interviewer. “Maybe that’s why I’ve always done so many things to mess with it.”) She agreed to peel away her usual chaotic, overfull production—her usual fantasy, you could say—out of a sense of the need for creative progress. But even if it was the only way forward, she was terrified of what she’d find under there.
So it is at the song’s bleakest moment that Stern reconnects, lyrically, with what pushes her to do creative work in the first place. Between spare verses and slowly rising guitars, she arrives at what initially seems to be another lament: “The work is never done, / and that is all I have,” which she repeats twice before concluding, “And I can’t get it right.” This is the crux: she can’t even do her own work right. It scans as just another dig, one more item in a litany of self-doubt, but her dissatisfaction conceals a desire that is revealed as the music swells to a triumphant, guitar-driven climax: the very fact that she’s so upset about being unable to “get it right” confirms how badly she wants to. It isn’t the grand order from the gods she was looking for, and it won’t necessarily lift her out of her quotidian exhaustion, but the knotty little compulsion to simply do her work better has forged a path for her through the fantasy. The sign she wanted was buried all along, next to her own will, at the core of her frustration.
By the end of the song, Stern’s self-negating refrain has turned 180 degrees: “I am something!” she bellows as her voice is swallowed by a tide of guitars and drums. “I am someone!” It’s a cryptic but powerful affirmation: the way creatively forward—the proof of life, so to speak—is finding the one problem we can’t bear to let go unsolved.
Duration of song: 3:42; Number of discrete lyrical lines therein: twelve; Number of those lines that are repeated two or more times: ten; Stern’s label: Kill Rock Stars; Stern’s age when signed to Kill Rock Stars: thirty; Stern’s current age: thirty-seven; Number of Google search results for “Marnie Stern shredding”: approximately 30,500; Stern’s home: a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; Other occupants of Stern’s home: one Yorkie-Maltese mix; Name of Yorkie-Maltese mix: Fig