‘a triumph of non-understanding over literalness; of reaching and grasping and flailing in the dark and realizing you enjoy that a lot more than having an issue spelled out to you‘ – John Lynch on 50FootWave‘s Bath White
Kristin Hersh continues. Having left all but the smallest labels aside for the best part of a decade now, she continues. At her gig in the Workmans Club in Dublin a few years back it was hard not to notice how much more, well, bookish the crowd were compared to previous gigs. And it made sense, her memoir was her most accessible piece of work since probably somewhere in the mid 90’s. Chances are, if you like one of her poppier Throwing Muses songs she’s likely disowned it as a self-betrayal – a song for morons written to appease a label who wanted Throwing Muses to, in her words, “suck more”. Her solo albums, bar the big one, the one she apparently makes no money from, have become increasingly difficult – melodies clipped, arrangements meandering in unknowable directions; the frenzied but appealing arpeggio-ed guitar lines of her early years often replaced with an almost onomatopoeic acoustic guitar *clunk*. It’s rarely pretty.
The thing is, and here’s the real rub, she’s right. We all know that that which is worthwhile is rarely instantly accessible. Even when we’re telling ourselves, and anyone who’ll follow us on twitter, that we’re now fully signed-up poptimists who unashamedly love pop music, who see no problem with whatever popstar endorsing whatever product (take the money and do something good with it right?) – even then, when the bubble is burst and a Bowie or a Prince dies, it’s their principles, for sticking to the true path, for following the art not the money, that we celebrate. Not the time they did the I Want My MTV advert.
Even at its most oblique, Kristin’s work is always true.
But it’s hard, oh man it’s hard. Don’t I know it. We all want to connect with each other and going outside the discourse can be tough. I’ve spent two years or so chipping away at the last Throwing Muses album, and I’m getting there, but it’s lonely work. It’d be tempting to just listen to the Beyonce album with everyone else, high five myself for being so woke, and move on.
50 Foot Wave, then. Kristin’s other band. The one that sounds like a speeding train with no brake. What makes a 50 Foot Wave song a 50 Foot Wave song and not a solo track or Throwing Muses song is, to these ears anyway, usually the unrelenting rush forward towards the end of the track. Rather than pulling back a moment to consider where they’re going, their songs always push forward, forward, FORWARD.
Like the majority of their releases (available for free here, or on Spotify if you prefer to pay almost nothing over actually nothing), Bath White is an EP, not an album. I guess albums need time to breathe and 50 Foot Wave don’t have the patience for that.
With all that in mind I was little surprised how accessible some of Bath White is. There’s something big about the songs on here, almost a religious bigness, like they’re on the verge of… what? …the verge of an edge of a knife. “Ratted Out” and “St Christopher” sound like lost alt-rock hits from the mid 90’s; resurrected and reanimated, where the familiar arrangement and choruses are lost but the feel of an anthem is still there. A chorus is always the first thing to lose its charm anyway, right? On here, just as you think you’re getting to grips with the structure of a song, it’ll pull back for a moment, before suddenly dropping sticks and running hell for leather towards the conclusion: mocking us for daring to try and understand them. It’d be the worst math-rock going in lesser hands but there’s no self congratulation here for discovering a new, even more complicated, time signature – everything is shorn to the bone. These are songs distilled to their purest essence. You’d bet that if there was a major label around they’d insist that Kristin make these songs more sucky.
As ever, lyrically, it’s a little hard to work out. Even with the accompanying essays, each a thoughtful vignette, it’s hard to figure out head on what the songs are about. And we’re not talking self conscious attempts at difficult lyrics or FEMALE CONFESSIONAL WRITING, never mind riot grrl sloganeering, here. Instead, the lyrics read like snatches of speech, real speech, like people actually talk, arranged into lyrics, take the title track:-
i wasn’t brutal i wasn’t anything at all consensus or confession i don’t recognize depression and all day you flaunt your addictions, buddy as your crowd gathers around
This isn’t story-telling writing, or rhyming couplets written to fit the melody, or music to nod to yourself on getting the reference; it’s much smarter than all that, smart enough to resist any genius.com line by line analysis. Kristin has often talked about being a kind of conduit for, rather than writer of, her songs. It’d be a tremendous piece of self mythologising braggado if it didn’t ring true, but it’s the songs themselves that feel clever; they’re not there to build up the writer’s profile, they just exist, written in stone. By way of comparison, the accompanying essays are much friendlier and more obviously written by her.
For what it’s worth then, I think “Human” might be about being human, or maybe exactly about not being human, or maybe both at once; the essay suggests it’s possibly about being a dog. Whichever it is, I don’t have to work it out precisely to get what she means when she sings:
i wanted that twisted human who stares me down and flies me up flies me to heaven the crime of it the punishment the crime of it the punishment
It’s not all intense incantations though, that’d be too obvious. For starters there’s the excellently titled “God’s Not a Dick”, a title which is kind of too much fun to bother worrying about profound emotions. Then there’s the fact that 50 Foot Wave are a band, and it’s a joy to hear them bouncing off each other. Finally, being that it all wraps up in 18 frenzied minutes there’s really no time to ponder the big questions here, you just have to go with it.
Overall, Bath White is a triumph of non-understanding over literalness; of reaching and grasping and flailing in the dark and realizing you enjoy that a lot more than having an issue spelled out to you. Hell, sometimes naming something destroys it, right? Sometimes the truth can only be understood by not looking directly at it? Something like that – although as I write this, it reads false, like the reheated glow of a Facebook update. I gotta try harder; if nothing else Kristin Hersh’s mission is to avoid clichés. This EP is a reminder that this is always possible, even if only on the sidelines.
Kristin already has another solo album coming out soon; I see it being called “confessional” (What the fuck kind of confessions are these people reading?). Kristin Hersh continues.