Review Summary: A messy life captured with equal parts precision and instinct.
Kristin Hersh, according to legend, suffered a head injury at age 16 which left her with a chronic hearing issue - sounds would sustain or echo long after she'd finished hearing them. Fate was not satisfied with only this misfortune, and also arranged difficult to diagnose mental health problems for our protagonist.
Much happened thereafter, but the main things to know from a career perspective is that she fronted the Throwing Muses with her step sister Tanya Donnelly, and she wrote weird songs. They were clearly rock songs, but they always seemed to have some element which defused predictability - a slight tempo change, a hook which went up when you expected down. The result were sometimes strange, sometimes ugly, but they were interesting.
This brief history seems important considering there's curiously no reviews for any of her work - I was floored that only 3 of her albums were even in the database. Talk about your underrated, forgotten 90's figures. Fast forward to the 2000's - Kristin had lost half her band, and had made some dense solo records heavily laden with acoustic guitar. She had lost a custody battle for her first child, she had addiction problems, and her mind was not kind to her.
This album was the result. All her instincts were focused by the adversity to create something accessible, emotionally powerful, and expertly crafted. There are still flourishes of the off-kilter, but for the most part the decisions are brilliant.
Her trademark surreal lyrics are unquestionably present here, but one layer of obliqueness is removed. As a result, the record hits hard. It's complex - the intense anger is directed outward and inward. There are no easy targets. The music is not simply a tap of the distortion pedal to convey this though. A stairway of suddenly descending piano notes to mirror the previous delicate acoustic guitar pattern in 'Candyland' (a song about losing her son in a custody battle) serves to let you know that all is really not well - the musical expression of a horrible moment of clarity. Her dust worn voice rails against the sound of the world marching on, moving on, while she's stuck with a form of regret she can't deal with.
Opener 'Your Dirty Answer' is a dreamy meditation on universal vice that transforms into a grimy picture of the fatigue that comes from chasing those pursuits, and a desperate plea for help. 'Spain', with its mysterious sun-drenched garden opening, is a painstakingly detailed story of infidelity with a spectacular chorus (equal parts righteous wrath and self-loathing). Her triumphant vocal is surrounded by waves of shifting guitar emerging from the savage pre-chorus. Closer 'Listerine' is the slow burn sound of sitting in a bean bag chair in your empty flat at rock bottom, drowning in self-pity. In between, there's jaunty desire and Mediterranean lightness in 'Summer Salt' and 'Silica'. There's a weary cover of Cat Stevens that somehow make sense. There's addiction, anger, sex and confusion in the balance. As Kristin would say about her first album - "Full of skin and coffee, shoes and sweat and babies and sex and food and stores – just stupid stuff that's really a big deal".