Throwing Muses: Purgatory/Paradise – album review
Throwing Muses: Purgatory/Paradise (The Friday Project)
29th October 2013
The indie/punk/art rock legends Throwing Muses are back with their first album in a decade; our man is a fan.
As anyone who loves music will tell you, certain bands hit you at just the right moment in life and become more than just music, they become part of you, set deep into your marrow to be loved forever. For me Throwing Muses are one of those bands. I was dragged to see them at the sticky-floored Bierkeller in Bristol in the early 90s by my then flatmates, at a time when I had zero interest in anything other than raving. The music was light years away from the warped UK rave, hammering European techno, and slinky US house that filled my every waking hour, but it seemed to me that Kristin Hersh and her band were triggering emotions strong enough to match those I felt alongside thousands of other people on 4am dancefloors. I was instantly smitten.
This long preamble is meant as a warning that the following review is in no way a dispassionate, detached overview of the first record from Throwing Muses in ten years – I’m simply not capable of writing that kind of review about this band. (And for full disclosure: I’ve been a Strange Angel supporter of Kristin Hersh for several years now, making regular small donations towards recording costs in return for a steady stream of new music). I’d actually argue that this record is worth your time on the strength of the band’s past achievements, even before you get to Hersh’s unsought place on the cutting edge (crowd funded before it even had a name, a shining example of how to have a music career with few compromises, author of one of the best music biographies ever published, and a strong, self aware female artist in a sea of exploitation). Luckily I don’t need to hark back, because it’s an enthralling, expansive record in its own right.
First up it has to said Paradise/Purgatory is a brave object. In a world of 69p mp3s it takes massive balls to release a 32-song CD with a 60-page hardback book, full of essays, lyrics, and beautiful images pulled together by Hersh and her drummer/designer Dave Narcizo. (The book & CD is published by HarperCollins in the UK, and the music on its own is available from all the usual places.) It really shouldn’t work in a world of playlists and shuffle, but somehow it does. The individual pieces, many very short and only six of them lasting more than three minutes, absorb strength from their surrounding songs and it all become more than the sum of its parts.
The openers show all the power of the record in just two songs; Shadow Hands is a delicate picked thing, with Hersh’s voice almost cracking over a moment of a quiet contemplation, that is suddenly obliterated by the crash of the intro to Morning Birds 1, a fizzing, fuzzy monster, that rages across the air and stomps through your mind. The drums of Narcizo and bass of Bernard Georges lock into perfect step, and Hersh’s guitar playing (often overlooked in lieu of her raging voice and her much discussed mental health issues) is a masterclass in creating harmonies from chaos. Any worries that the Muses would have lost something during their decade long recording hiatus are immediately expelled.
There are clever little curlicues of guitar all over the place, with hooks that lesser bands would build a career introduced and then abandoned, always making room for the next sound that urgently needs room to breathe. It isn’t a record you could imagine emerging from any kind of corporate structure – songs are repeated in different versions, something shorter, sometimes longer, sometimes version two comes first in the running order, sometimes a song arrives and leaves before you’ve really had time to absorb it’s presence. Some, including Lazy Eye, Slippershell, Milan, and lead single Sunray Venus, are underpinned by a restrained fury while others, including Opiates which lopes along on a low slung chugging rhythm, seem to be yearning for something, searching for answers. One of the shortest songs, stretching to just 43 seconds, is Curtains 2, a bass drenched lament that sounds like it is carrying the weight of the world as it fades away. All of the things that made Throwing Muses beloved during their mid 90s heyday are still in place – the strange time structures, the heavy groove of the rhythm section, and the sudden bursts of volume – but here they are enhanced by occasional pianos and strings, and it sounds complete. This is the product of a band with the freedom to do exactly what they want, making exactly the right record for them.
And in the middle of it all there is Hersh and her guitar and her voice. Ah, that voice. It emerged from their first records like a musical WMD, utterly unlike anything else, expressing life, death, and the implausibility of existence within it’s range. Inevitably decades down the line it’s not the same raw force of nature it once was, but what it has lost in brute power it has gained in depth. Cracked and imperfect it may now be, but it’s all the more human – humane – for it. Drenched in pathos it sounds like the desert, it sounds like the ocean, it sounds like a full life well lived: it’s still a remarkable instrument for any human being to have at their disposal. Purgatory/Paradise is an affecting album from a band that many of us feared we’d never hear from again. If the songs are this good then I can wait another ten years, but I really hope we don’t have to.