Purgatory / Paradise
It’s the first Throwing Muses album in a decade and Hersh and crew – here with the new model that Kristin has been working for her solo releases too, crowd-funded, lavish packaging, hundreds of names mentioned in the credits, essays and liner-note commentary, lyrics and extras beyond that if you’re keen – have jammed 32 songs into one 68-minute sitting. Making music directly – and only – for their fans.
Whilst some of the songs end abruptly or seemingly start mid-sentence it’s remarkable that, so often, Hersh has tapped into an almost Pollard-like ability to instantly find the heart of the song, drain enough blood from it for the performance always leaving enough for repeat listens.
The opening Smoky Hands is just one minute long and yet there’s a key change, a dramatic pause, a slow build with drums arriving midway, it’s as if no one told the song it was only one minute long so it played out like a regular three-or-four minute tune.
But Morning Birds 1 leaps in as if there hasn’t been any gap since the band’s great Limbo album. Usually – and it’s still largely the case here – you can tell the difference between a Hersh solo song, a Muses piece and something for 50 Foot Wave. But if one or two of these songs (Sleepwalking 2, the first example) seem like they might actually have been a Hersh tune first that’s because they were – or might have been; some of these songs or song-snippets have been inside the Hersh/Muses online world since around 2007.
The model is clearly working for the Muses and for the head Muse’s muse – she’s piling up the songs and many of them are career-best highlights. And even when they seem like little snatches, half-realised or fully-formed, there’s an urgency or intensity about their purpose. These songs needed to be locked together; the album’s tension seems to play out because of the correct amount of songs being stacked up.
As always it’s not an easy listen – but it’s not inaccessible. Thought-provoking, filled with flashes of moments that might have come from other Muses albums including the lighter-in-the-air/fill-the-stadium-of-your-bedroom singalongs and nod-alongs too (Opiates is the early standout) Purgatory / Paradise feels like no such thing as a comeback. From the reminder of how the band always had fun with a shuffle (Triangle Quantico) to those crayon-scribbled guitar lines (Slippershell) to that voice which has already covered everything Eels and The Breeders and so many other groups went on to say or wanted to say (Blurry 2) – this album could have slotted in after Red Heaven or straight after Limbo or as a bonus disc/flipside to University or at almost any other step or place in the band’s canon.
That’s the singular magic of Kristin Hersh’s writing. And the busking-for-the-big-time feel of this band.
And yet these songs could only actually have happened now, for they deal in breakups (and sometimes make-ups). They deal in the devastation of the flooding of New Orleans, the dissolution of relationships, the waking at strange hours to scratch out a song with the weight of all the other songs that arrived in a similar way but years before pressing down on that tune’s spine.
That’s how you know you’re lucky to have this. And lucky to have them. And lucky that it feels like they never left you. And clearly have never left (behind) themselves. That the Throwing Muses will always know (how) to behave like Throwing Muses is one of the great joys in this life listening to music. Each new blast of song-hint reminds you of that first time hearing one of the most potent and poignant catalogues of music you’ve had the pleasure of connecting with. And here – once more – it is all over again.