Taking Us With You
When an artist gushes and self-indulges about and in a work, it can be taken in one of two ways: as undeserved and unearned conceit, or as a welcome insight into the creative mind. The quality and caché of the artist mixed with the dedication and appetite of the audience determines this. For a band like Throwing Muses, the latest ’80s/’90s band to release new music this year, their following may be just dedicated enough and just hungry enough to be ready to listen to these 32 tracks while reading along in a companion book that is much more then just lyrics. Purgatory/Paradise, a project 10 years in the making, rewards fans’ patience with an accomplishment that is as worthwhile as it is ambitious.
Do not be intimidated by the total number of songs; most clock in at under two minutes, appearing like ideas of songs or, rather, like the songs wrote themselves. Kristen Hersh, frontwoman, explains this in the text: “Purgatory/Paradise wrote itself while we made coffee and followed it around… it’s what all thirty-two songs wanted to be, and the songs are always right. ‘Imperfect in its perfection’ became our cheery catchphrase.” The end result has a feel of delicate incompleteness; you’re tempted to wonder if the songs could have been fleshed out more and spread across two or three albums, but then you conclude that doing so would have damaged some kind of bond these tracks have with each other, not to mention with the band.
Purgatory/Paradise launches with “Smoky Hands,” as Hersh’s raspy voice, authenticated by time, sings a melancholic melody over sweetly sparse guitars. “Morning Birds” brings the jangly rock that fans are familiar with. Reading along with the text, Hersh invites you in to her thought process, revealing a story about waiting for morning in the rain in her home town of Chattanooga while the rest of the band slept, and how the “morning birds” reminded her of her childhood. “Sunray Venus,” arguably the best song on the album, effectively describes a disturbing lack of calm in the music, in the lyrics and in the accompanying text.
Purgatory/Paradise is a work of art, but it is never artsy. The music is accessible and digestible. The text is insightful, but it’s difficult to focus on both at the same time, which is a credit to the quality of the music. When it’s over, you’re left with the fear that Hersh is spent, that she has nothing left in the tank. But after fans devour and absorb this latest collection, they are likely to want more, so here’s hoping Hersh is not finished yet.