The Throwing Muses’ latest album, Purgatory/Paradise, and their first in about a decade, comes to us – like Kristen Hersh’s most recent solo material – in book form, the kind of artefact that once upon a time would have been issued via 4AD but now brought to us courtesy of The Friday Project. There are lyrics, musings and artworks (photographs of clouds, mountains and headless mannequins, montages of flames and words, abstractions, road signs, trees and windows) as well as the obligatory band shots (the current Muses line-up is Hersh, David Narcizo on drums and Bernard Georges on bass). ‘This book is a sound,’ we are informed; ‘this sound is a book.’
As with the recent JJ Abrams’ ‘novel’ S, though, you have to decide how you approach this. Do you ignore the book for a little while and just listen to the album? Do you start in with the book, as if it was another instalment of Hersh’s memoirs (a la Paradoxical Undressing)? Let’s say you start in with the album. If you are listening without song titles, the first thing that will strike you is a lot of the songs are really short, fragments really rather than songs. Then you may find yourself beset with a nagging sense of déjà vu – this fragment is familiar; and this. Fans familiar with both Hersh and the Muses will start to pick up the fact that the sound these days is part Hips & Makers and part University with a little bit of the hardness of 50 Foot Wave thrown in for good measure.
At this point, you may find yourself a songlist and you realise that you were right on the fragment front: there are lots of part ones and part twos littering Purgatory / Paradise, some of which are songs and refrains – album opener ‘Smoky Hands 1’ for instance which runs to 1m9s returns for 28 further seconds some 27 songs later. Some – ‘Morning Birds’, ‘Sleepwalking’, – are like flipsides of one another (metal and acoustic). In between the half dozen pairings, there are other fully fledged songs, some – like ‘Slippershell’ and ‘Opiates’ – that run to a good length (about 4m) – and others that are over before you know it (‘Bluff’ and ‘Walking and Talking’, for instance, are lovely minute length tracks). It might seem a little cold or logistical to approach the album with a schematic like this but it’s useful. And you want a basic familiarity with the sounds before you get to the words (if you even get to the words: just listening may be enough for you: and this is ok: the sounds are good enough to detain you for a while).
The words are aficionado territory: if you want to know how attracted Hersh is to the idea of numbness, that one song arose from the drumming of rain on a car windshield after she’d sat awake all night, reflections on mortality (parked outside of Portland, Oregon, in a traffic jam that has gone on so long the band are sat on the highway edge wondering if the tour they’re on will be their last), evasive actions taken after a bouncer is stabbed, life on the road, life on a bus, life, the universe and everything – these are Hersh’s subjects and they are entertaining and distracting in equal measure. The book is not the end, though. There are commentaries that can be accessed; alternative ‘lossless’ versions of songs, instrumentals, additional artwork. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
If Throwing Muses are not your kind of thing, then Purgatory / Paradise will hardly tear you away from your Disclosure album (or whatever it is that you kids are listening to); if, as is more likely if you’ve got to this point in the review, you once followed them or maybe caught one of Kristen Hersh’s solo shows and wonder whether you should check this out, we’d supply a hearty hell yes. The fact that this project was supported by Kickstarter also suggests reports (by the band) of the band’s demise are not to be taken seriously. From the sounds on offer here, the Muses are in rude health. And when you’ve exhausted the book and all of the extras, the album is good enough to play over and over and over again.
Any Cop?: One for the fans, certainly, but also good enough to convert new fans.