Wrapped in a Stung Tension – Kristin Hersh’s “Wyatt at the Coyote Palace”

Kristin Hersh
Wyatt at the Coyote Palace
Omnibus Press

Written by:

What is this relationship exactly between artist and ‘fan?’ That last word earns its single quotation marks by virtue of both its breezy inadequacy – it sounds so flippantly two-dimensional for a dynamic often defined by a deeply ardent emotional bond – and the sad fact that, after all’s said and done, it’s almost precisely the most suitable term and for almost precisely the same reason its accuracy was just questioned in the first place. Aside from a lack of un-cringeworthy alternatives – what might be proposed in its stead? Great admirer? Consumer? Appreciator? The levels of absurdity only go up from there – the word works for the very fact that its vagueness allows for the encompassment of fandom’s almost limitless degrees of fervor. Even excluding those to whom the adjective ‘casual’ must be attached, there still remains a vast variance from those that were smitten at one point but, despite best intentions perhaps, have been pulled away in the intervening years by any of the thousand distractions, all of which fall under the stretched parameters of ‘life got in the way’ (this will include most of us, myself very much included) to those that have clung and continue to cling to every utterance and gesture and that might feasibly border on the criminally obsessed (just about none of us – hopefully). I apologize for being so discursive when all you’re looking for is a record review, but the question of the artist/fan relationship and how to determine the terms of what amounts to a sort of implied contract between two parties, investing from opposite directions in a product that, in essence, is so sublimely indeterminate, rises quite often for me, and never more so than when the ever-prolific Kristin Hersh is the subject at hand.

I’ve recalled before my earliest response to Ms Hersh’s work when it first appeared in the form of the Throwing Muses self-titled debut LP (unbelievably celebrating its 30th birthday this year), a reaction best summarized by the phrase ‘one of our most important songwriters.’ Given that level of critical intensity one would think that, at that point, she indeed had in me a lifelong fan, and one would not be wrong. I’ve never stopped considering her among this country’s strongest songwriters even in those times when that status was only reaffirmed after some length of retrospect, during periods when the impetus we all have to acquire an artist’s or band’s work the week it’s released had shifted to other, ‘fresher,’ seemingly more immediate artists (Th’ Faith Healers or PJ Harvey, for instance, Built To Spill; more recently Deerhoof and St Vincent; there have been many of them). And yet, at the same time I’m citing – quite reasonably, I think – those other sirens’ calls to explain my occasional absence, I can’t help but suspect that, even had I never strayed in the least, there’s a fair chance the sheer artistry of Kristin Hersh would have kept outpacing my ability to keep up with it anyway.

Whatever the case it hardly matters now as I’m back by her side again even as she naturally has no idea I’m here, hasn’t missed me as I’ve missed her. But that’s how this dynamic works, and anyway a whimsical, somewhat childish part of me believes she senses a returned presence, not of me specifically but of an intermittently errant tide of ‘fans’ being drawn back to her time and again, album after album. It’s a result that can’t surprise considering the inevitable lures that come built-in with every Kristin Hersh release, themselves born of the utterly compelling (and artfully honed) honesty that acts as her creative process’s radiant nucleus, glowing inside a powerful magnetism of soul and illuminating her work from within. There may not be a lot we can count on these days but Kristin Hersh giving of herself with a devotional abandon to whatever project she’s committed to is one of them, and while that is as true as it’s ever been on this new album, the prime driving inspiration behind Wyatt at the Coyote Palace seems to have credibly made it her most honest album to date.

The ‘Wyatt’ in the title is Hersh’s son, a boy on the autism spectrum that, during the time his mom was laying down this album’s tracks with Steve Rizzo in Portsmouth, RI (Hersh responsible for every sound here), grew fascinated by an abandoned apartment building that had become home to a pack of coyotes. His visits were frequent, his focus on the place and its inhabitants so intense he took to filming them, a documentarian impulse it’s impossible to not see as maternally derived. As any parent of her sensibilities and in that situation would, Hersh, in her words, “so loved his love of that place,” and while there’s no exact narrative correlation between subject and lyric – Hersh’s verses, as ever, rely on an intimate expressionism meeting the hard squint of realism, in this case flinching through addiction and shaky recovery and reading like news blurbs from the emotional end of her intuition – the feel of these songscapes, twenty-four of them stretched over two CDs packaged inside a hardbound book (her third such offering after previous solo record Crooked in 2010 and ’13’s Throwing Muses opus Purgatory/Paradise), suggests a hovering care. The blended aura of fright and wonder and heaviness and delicacy, of caution and its opposite, is as present as expected in this artist’s work, it just seems to emanate in more compressed waves here, as if, sound-wise, there’s more emphasis on the close-up.

Kristin Hersh Portrait

[photo by Peter Mellakas]

First track “Bright” exemplifies this straightaway, its intro with a distant ghostly howl foregrounded by the resonant pick of an acoustic and, more curiously, a kind of crackling underfoot – field recordings number among the instruments Hersh is credited for on Wyatt – that together lend a quietly rough ambiance that couldn’t be more immediate. The song eventually evolves into one of those trademark Hershian pieces, half lacerating half empathetic, full of lurch and sway, establishing along the way that this most consummate of artists is still the most undistracted member of her class.

Banjo-tipped and visited in its first segment by a scritchy underworld presence of disembodied voices and a plash of water – it’s in these production decisions where the mystery of Wyatt’s world is most palpable – second track “Bubble Net,” in its tone and structure, in the trance of its ageless melody, is flat out one of the most poignant songs in Hersh’s vast and ever-growing repertoire. “In Stitches” follows, sounding initially like nothing less than the singer’s own “Needle and the Damage Done” before breaking carefully into a rockier territory no less imbued with a fractured sweetness (“tangerine and seasick green,” she sings, which should give you a clue). “Secret Codes,” featuring a couple of strummed acoustics so closely merged with a cello the three appear conjoined, is a cry of defiant loneliness and contains just about the best line I’ve heard this year in “sorta know how to pray / you just ache with hope til it goes away” and there you have in Wyatt‘s first four cuts not just a statement of artistic intent more boldly presented and forthright than we’ve any right to expect in these irony-filled days, but as well a strength of material so unvaryingly bracing you could stop there and still have a rather monumental album in your hands, its music direct but at the (very daring) far end from banal, the lyrics impressionistic in their way but made to bear up under the crush of a very real gravity. Venturing further through the record’s 24 tracks there’s no choice but to marvel – How did she manage to marshal the psychic stamina? However she has, she has, and you move on grateful.

“Hemingway’s Tell” (fabulous title), besides Hersh’s engaging in a touch of vocal oscillation a la Petra Haden, alternates between a bass-y Stranglers-like heavy and the presumed light of an acoustic, a presumption left wanting as that just-mentioned gravity, as always, persists. Similarly, “Wonderland,” in the main, harkens back to the Muses’ post-postpunk impulses, thrumming and loose and haunted (“Sun Bloom” on disc 2 will mine comparable energies, pulsing with a rocknroll anger that the young Patti Smith would have gladly laid claim to, and would likely have also included the amusing, and telltale, comment at the end, Hersh confessing “There’s spit on my notebook”). The spell-casting “Diving Bell,” with no little thanks to the ringing poignancy of a 12-string and the beautiful moan of a sunsetting cello, exudes a dark luminosity as a string of imagery flows past that, despite its outward abstraction, feels as grounded as any pain does.

 

Concluding disc one is the translucent confessional “Guadalupe,” the feature vocal visceral, full of Hersh’s signature tough vulnerability, while the backing bah-bah vox are almost disturbingly carefree, floating overhead elegiac and unguarded like voices seeping through a wall of seaside mist. At some point, listening to Wyatt at the Coyote Palace – and this may well be that point – you realize that what’s stunning you most about this record is how it surprises (sometimes gently, often not), springing into the unexpected, arrangements realigned, emphases shifted, whether into high gear or low it never matters, the impact remains the same. On “American Copper,” opening disc two, in amidst the staccato precision of the singer’s strumming – before, naturally, she flips it into a lullaby folk-picking finale – the shadow that dogs many if not most of these two dozen songs is allowed its voice, however softly murmured, appearing like one of those memories that arise when one finds oneself staring off into an unseen middle distance. A blink-and-you-miss-it nuance, it’s its subtlety that unsettles. In “Soma Gone Slapstick” the push- and pullback, the slipstream that can make being caught in “this old dopey game” seem like a consciously-inflicted episode of manic depression, is laid bare by the cut contrast of a bass-fed rumble against some windblown acoustica, akin, one might think, to a junkie’s rhythm, the pulse-y excitement of the hit versus the calms between. “Christmas Underground,” meanwhile, bookended by two of Wyatt‘s few guitar solos, comes as close as anything on here to a ‘classic rock song’ even as it’s among the album’s most complex tracks, its essence searching for (what else?) balance, possibly between redemption and chaos, maybe between love and self-preservation who knows and given the subject matter – “degrading’s degrading all around” is one of its central lines – it could be between a random this and random that so long as there’s some kind of balance somewhere on offer. By whatever reading, its hypnotic appeal merits special attention.

On the heels of the deftly finger-picked exit theme of “Christmas Underground”‘s second solo we’re led to a cut entitled, not coincidentally one reckons, “Between Piety and Desire,” where the cello returns to help underscore the depth of the song’s (and the entire album’s?) teeteringness, not just between piety and desire but as well between despondency and a profound fatalism. It’s a huge song inside a small space and is also about the bravest thing I’ve heard since maybe Cobain’s ciphered cry of pain on “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” After the brittle interim of “Shaky Blue Can” Wyatt finishes and decisively with “Shotgun,” a complicated soliloquy on not giving up, or rather ‘in,’, on letting go just so much so as to not completely let go to the point you don’t come back. Again we are, no surprise, rich in dualities – an unfussy structure built at a deliberate pace and yet as unsteady as they come (“the breakneck speed slowed to a float“), Hersh’s voice a picture of calm wrapped in a stung tension of regret battling with acceptance, everything under control except for the fact nothing really is, a state of mind made manifest by the three-plus minute coda of squalling electric guitar textures laid atop that slow-bright plod of a tempo like a howl of invisible wraiths raining down on an otherwise sedate sunny day. Whether it’s the despair of release or the release of despair you’re not going to care, it’s a gloriously fucked-up and cathartic ending that innately, with a lashing-out acuity, captures the fractured survivalist mood of all that’s preceded it.

The scope of this work is both breathtaking and exquisitely contained, with an explosive stillness that could well be suffocating but isn’t, not in the least. It is, instead, rather freeing. To witness anguish withstood, to see that, when the chase after the chimera of false ecstasy fails as it will and must do, you don’t necessarily have to be left forever gasping and stupefied, unable to move on, but can absorb and regenerate and discover it’s possible to live with a bruised hope inside your pain. There is, at the very least, a liberating spark in that. Hersh’s remit here – as is anyone’s, really – was to strive her way through the Gordian knot of her own making, and while the fact that she’s managed to do so with such a commandingly artful presence isn’t perhaps a shock given her faculty to do exactly that to one degree or another throughout her career, it is still no less inspiring.

In the end Wyatt’s interest in the coyotes and their adapted habitat stopped with an abruptness as swift and sharp as a scene marker on a movie set, leaving only mystery and the suspended breath of his own interior life, a space at least as complex and wildly occupied as the warrens and hallways of the Coyote Palace. Regardless, it would seem we have his profound encounter with the unknowable to thank for helping provide the crucial impetus that resulted in this remarkable record.

As the book, full of allusive, elliptical, journal-like essays between the song lyrics, makes clear, there is no first side/second side to the double CD, no chapter one chapter two. Wyatt at the Coyote Palace is instead one long and flowing – and fitful – meditation on the themes in play. There is also, as reflected above, no resolution because none exist. There are plenty of boxes in this quick tangled life that we’re constantly either stepping into or fighting our way out of but not one of them is neat or tied with a bow. It’s a fundamental that Kristin Hersh has always understood and never failed to find the courage to explore. It is by that indisputable fact alone that, whatever the shape and contours the dynamic may take, no matter where she wanders down whatever twisted path, into whatever dark involved cul-de-sac, I’ll follow. However weak the word, I’ll never not be a ‘fan.’ Because really, how is that even possible?