Scathingly Vulnerable – Throwing Muses’ “Purgatory/Paradise”

Throwing Muses
Harper Collins/It Books

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What’s with 2013, anyway? It was already making a mess of prospective end-of-year best-of lists by tossing gems like that Bongos ‘lost record’ and Chrome’s Half Machine From The Sun into a mix that had no shortage of contemporary contenders, including career-definers from The Multiple Cat, Pillars and Tongues, Icarus Line and plenty more, all doing battle with a bumper crop of stunner debuts, The Cloak Ox, Savages, and Weekend, to name but three. Then the 80’s/90’s contingent had to crash the party, first in the form of Kitchens of Distinctions’ surprise return and now this, Kristin Hersh resurrecting the Throwing Muses for a sprawling, often incandescent, multi-media extravaganza by the name of Purgatory/Paradise. Other than learning to live with a broad, giddy idiot’s grin stuck on his face like rictus as a result of all this, what’s a poor music writer to do? Well, yeah, grin and bear it, I suppose, shoulder the burden somehow and find a way to carry on. In the case of this new Muses record, it’s a challenge not only easily met but greedily welcomed.

Irreflective of the album’s title (it’s actually an intersection of roads on Aquidneck Island, RI where the singer grew up and now, once again, resides), the 32 (!) tracks are roughly split in half between shorter if seldom rougher sketches that quite often have companions elsewhere on the record – most times fleshed out but not always – and full-on band workouts which, were they strung together, would comprise just about the killerest Throwing Muses album imaginable. While in fact making it a tad confusing and hodge-podgy, the fact the record is insterspersed like this isn’t as annoying as it might seem, since, unlike Quasi’s most recent, the quicker glimpses offered here are, with rare exception, fully-realized pieces on their own, as integral to the whole-cloth feel of this record as their longer sisters.

Gestating for five years and whittled down from the 75 songs they began with (in a Rolling Stone interview Hersh mentions how good they are at editing and that, given enough time, they could have edited it down to zero), Purgatory/Paradise gives the listener a knock-out look-in at just how locked in to her craft Hersh is. You won’t find filler here. If at times there’s some frustration that a track hasn’t pursued itself a bit further it’s an almost certain bet that somewhere deeper in the tracklisting, it does. The shortest piece here, at a touch over thirty seconds, is “Folding Fire 2,” a flute-floating instrumental that in its full incarnation loses the flute and gains a crunching depth you’ll surely recognize. Only twice, on “Bluff” and “Walking Talking,” both a minute and change and both orphans, are we left hanging wanting more, the latter even teasing us with the fade-out line “all we want is more.” Mostly though these briefer pieces qualify as full-fledged shorties only marginally dependent if at all on their longer versions. And that’s only if they are longer. The sweet-talking indictment “Cherry Candy 1” is met a scant three tracks later by “..2” carrying nine more seconds but sporting a heavier sound, while “Curtains 1,” dragged about by a dark sleepiness, wakes up twelve tracks later with the same tune but now at the tailend of emotional mo(u)rning. Then there’s the two “Dripping Trees” towards the end of the record. The first is a deliberately-paced, bass-fed gem (Bernard Georges’ work as gorgeous as I’ve ever heard it) that, even with the line “these wicked memories all come down, eventually,” is as sweet as we’re gonna get on Purgatory/Paradise, while the second, five tracks down, similarly appointed but with only one lyric (the line I just cited with ‘liquid’ replacing ‘wicked,’ an intriguing twist), is the soothing sequel that helps give its predecessor a sharper context.

kristin hersh

Highlight among these pairs might well be “Sleepwalking 1” and “..2,” the second appearing first, a punchy, drum-punctuated, acoustic-based thing that boasts a scorching little electric solo before its longer cousin pops up much later as one of the LP’s most frontal assaults, Kristin’s double-tracked electric (no acoustic softness here) adopting a Cobain-esque starkness while eschewing the solo for maximum impact. Add in Hersh’s always laser-like lyric writing and the game of mix and match on Purgatory/Paradise becomes a kind of thrilling rock ‘n’ roll game of Chutes and Ladders, sliding all over the record in somersaults and blurs and it’s all quite wonderful but in the end it’s the lengthier tracks, whether linked or stand-alone, that most often stir the mighty spirits first awakened on the incendiary self-titled debut back in 1986.

Second track in, “Morning Birds 1,” takes the torch from the contemplative “Smoky Hands 1” and immediately the guitar is running recklessly around lighting fires, David Narcizo on a rampage, banging furiously away, minimal fatalist lyrics echoing themselves, nearly overlapping (“life isn’t sweet anyway”) then whomp! the song morphs into a pickin’ acoustic strummer, the title finally emerging (“morning birds screamed all night”), the words all fraught romanticism (I can’t move/I miss you/I better take this lying down) but then what’s new. If one hies quickly to “Morning Birds 2” one finds an exact fade-in continuation, the words, for the moment, taking a sin-and-absolution turn before resuming the same set of lines quoted from above. Pretty and inimitably Muse-ish as it is, the point of its existence remains a little elusive, a rare sentiment here.

throwing muses pic

“Sunray Venus,” like many tracks on this record, fits seamlessly into the long canon of unflinching Throwing Muses songs, this time contrasting the heavy driving acoustic strokes with an even heavier, fraying bass thrum for that unmistakable frisson of tension that defines this band. Such defining moments, wonderfully, are everywhere you look on Purgatory/Paradise. 

Both “Freesia” and “Lazy Eye” are, in a sense, template Muses and yet, in the former’s case, for all its characteristics of loping acoustic-ruled rhythm, the usual challenge and poetry of lyric, the exacto-knife precision in the arrangement and execution – Narcizo and Georges, boy, I tell ya – it’s as singularly compelling and irresistible as anything on the record, the one song that brought chills my first time through (more would follow). Seems insane to say because you’d think we’d know this by now but Hersh simply doesn’t know how to write a weak song. “Lazy Eye,” bathed in places in reverby atmospherics that, sound-wise, evoke what a long lonely street at midnight looks like, doubly proves the point, pushing forward (again) scathingly vulnerable lines like “We see so clearly/with tears in our eyes, sometimes” inside an unbearably tight verse/chorus set-up that opens up, closes, opens up some more, entrances.

For more quintessential Muses-ness we get “Opiates” with its mild but incessant, concussive pound that, despite a message that’s a bit remonstrative (“that’s no way to bring a body down”), is regardless one of Purgatory/Paradise‘s loveliest tracks, the long double-tracked electric solo outro upliftingly sad in the way of any and all such excursions from this band and is an unmissable reminder of why they are among the few that can bring us to the edge of tears while simultaneously running shivers of joy up our spines. Then there’s “Slippershell,” the album’s longest track and a song seemingly designed to show off what might lazily be termed ‘the awesome power’ of the Throwing Muses.’ Starting off all slow and bare, the vocal already giving no quarter, Kristin’s accented electric matched tone for tone by a bell chime, the track, inevitably, bursts into action, chasing itself across the room, a roaring fuck-you guitar part following the payoff, fuck-off line of “you’re a slippershell and you can go to hell, pulling back, racing off, push-me pull-you like that, like we like it, all effortlessly seamed into an imperishable whole. It’s also damned powerful, it stirs and troubles and rocks you with both complex emotion and air guitar-worthy playing. That it reminds in its multitudes and impact of, say, “Vicky’s Box,” is testament enough to the claims made herein to this band’s inspiring endurance. 

Purgatory/Paradise is a great record to go roaming around in, pinballing through the alternately strobe-lit and underlit rooms of Hersh’s songwriting psyche. She talks freely about the trancelike state she inhabits when writing and performing – and if you’ve seen her live you’ve seen the possessed glass stare that confirms this – often unaware of what exactly she’s written or sung. It’s caused some friction along the way but it’s never not fascinating, never exhibits anything less than a starkly human magnetic pull. That it always comes ensconsed inside intimately personal arrangements that remain so even in their rockiest moments (the pop-sikey “Film”) is what has made, and keeps, this band so special. I realized listening to this album that I’ve never been disappointed by a Muses album. On the contrary, they’ve always delivered fearlessly the type material that catches me edgily off guard and brings a thrill doing it. How any band can seem so unmoored and so solidly grounded at the same time is a marvel, and Throwing Muses, and Purgatory/Paradise, are indeed marvelous. But more broadly, beyond just the scope of this record, you have to love any band that makes you as finely appreciative of the simple, complicated fact of being alive as this one does. A national treasure.