I find it funny how the morbidly apocryphal (and ghoulishly true) can draw people to an artist’s work. Would we still be reading Sylvia Plath if she had instead stuck her head in a breadbox by mistake and finished the morning with Belgian waffles? Maybe, but her work is inextricably refracted through her biographical tragedy. In my first encounter with Karen Dalton, the punk rock hairstylist playing the record off-handedly remarked that she barely made it through one record before going mad, hitting the junk and killing herself. (The truth is more fitful, frustrating, and Nick Nolte-esque.) It’s So Hard To Tell Who’s Going To Love You the Best instantly transformed from a record I loved, to one I had to protect. Just as the ambiguous details surrounding Nick Drake’s death led people to exhaustively make his sorrow sacred, my belief was that Karen Dalton was soul country’s undiscovered Ophelia.
The burden of biography is one of the constant never-to-be-resolved struggles of art criticism. “It” (the muse, the inspiration) has to come from somewhere, and the easiest targets are usually bad childhoods, bad drugs, and bad friends who made worse lovers. Then there’s the god-touched fixation, a Romantic-era hangover of the artist as a cracking damn of pain and beauty ready at any moment to burst into eternity. Martyrdom, swooning tragedy, it’s all bred into the fabric of our culture, and people love to read the classically doomed artist’s life as the excess we desire and the punishment that prevents us from living the life of glorious Icarus risk.
Some critics have certainly fought back against this strand of interpretation, which occasionally verges on mysticism, by sifting out the juicy bits to connect artistic influences, parch adjectives, and construct a record review that’s more comfortable using a term from geometry than a human emotion. Your grandma wears sexier sentences. Yet honestly, so few musicians merit the carrying around temple stones; the more detachment you can muster for the new My Chemical Romance song, the more likely you are to accurately peg its instantly sinking significance. In an era when bands get their first commercial before their first single, it’s difficult to wet yourself over ever-revolving seasons of performing merchandise. The only thing I need to know about Wolfmother’s “Woman” is that its greatest achievement would be to make tampon commercials less freighted with guilt, shame, and clinical unease with menstruation.
The long and winding road that leads to this review was just my babbling way of saying that I can’t help but listen to Karen Dalton’s music as sorrowfully lost opportunity for greatness. Thankfully, her work has experienced something of a renaissance, as boutique record labels rescue treasures from the vaults and indie insiders turn their opinions into branding mechanisms. Adopting Karen Dalton as one of the foremothers of the freak folk movement, Devandra Banhart has given this record his seal of a approval in a tortured bit of free form poetry in the liner notes, which certainly has Dalton kicking holes in her coffin as furiously as she tore out a bathroom sink during a difficult recording session. (She is nothing, if not a traditionalist.) That she hated performing, except in her living room, that she knew she was brilliant but could never manage or care enough to cultivate careerism, added up to an Okie girl that never caught a real break. She buried herself in drugs and drink, spent years intermittently homeless and died in 1993, little more than a “who’s that girl?” footnote in a Bob Dylan photo.
The re-release of Dalton’s second album (it seemed to take her about ten years to be cajoled into recording each) does more than merely make my former punk rock beautician a dirty, stinking liar. It’s a welcome complement to the traditional folk, blues, and soul interpretations offered up on her first release, with a lush blush of horns, piano and drums muscling up the background. Think of this album as a more fascinating version of Chan Marshall’s experiment with The Greatest. Where The Greatest fails to have enough wingspan to pick Marshall’s corpse cadence off the floor, In My Own Time uses the flourishes of country and soul to suggest a confidence and optimism that sometimes disappears when Dalton nakedly tears her vocals in slow shreds like an ex-lover’s letters.
Though she bristled at the label “Hillbilly Holiday”, it’s impossible not to hear why the Billie Holiday reference surfaces as much as it does. Dalton wrote no original material (Holiday wrote little); her skill rested in the deep, emotional evocation of her interpretations. Dalton could own material in a lingered word and a pace freighted with a sorrowful yoke. “Something on Your Mind” blankets her clotted, cracking croon in the loose warmth of slide guitar and violin, as if the musicians simply wanted spontaneous, free-form filigree to barely contain her vocals. Strategically, nothing else would work with Dalton’s rhythmic originality: beautifully tangential, woozy, with unexpected peaks and valleys. It’s similar in circuitousness to Björk’s murmur-to-shriek routine, but without the extremes and tedious redundancies.
Despite having no original material of her own, Dalton’s covers often supersede rendition and become spectacularly owned in interpretation. “When a Man Loves a Woman” becomes both less sentimental and more touching, belted out into the embracing breaks in her voice, which catches fuzz and crackle with a record needle sensitivity. There’s more desperation in the intonation, and the foggy backdrop of horns gives the song a pillowy texture without making it outright pillow talk. Reversing the song’s gender norms with a female singer also has the uncanny effect of inserting simultaneous sincerity and doubt. The Percy Sledge version (forget the Michael Bolton butchery) has the unfortunate undertones overtly expressed in James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World”. Baby, you owe me. For Dalton, it’s: Baby, I love you, but you’re probably full of shit.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” couldn’t be more bursting with Sesame Street glee. Rambunctious, genuinely savored, Dalton and the honky tonk crew swinging around her soar, turning the song into pure sunbeam. It’s a touching and telling bit of evidence that, given a traditional career track, output, and the opportunity for a broader variety of arrangements, Dalton could have had far greater diversity in her output. Certainly her saddest numbers remain her signature (and rightly so), but her cloudy, scratchy lilt had the potential for the Motown reaches of uplift only hinted at here.
Some might find Dalton’s work both unnerving and unnervingly uniform. It’s true that she has a ghosted voice that sometimes floods the songs with the contradictory sensation of immobile panic. “Katie Cruel”, pared back to a few banjo bones and razor lines of violin, sounds like an artist whose gorgeous tones can barely repress a monstrous and gnashing unraveling. That gnawing vulnerability has more magnetism than mania. In fact, it’s those hidden pockets in her drawn and drawled syllables that make her music have more intrigue than simply a depressive with a twelve string. Karen Dalton has a defiant innocence and embittered sorrow that make listening to In My Own Time a deeply pleasurable knot.
As to the monochromatic quality of Dalton’s sparse catalogue; we’re lucky we got the glimpse. By all accounts, she was beyond reluctant to be heard, something ineffable in an era where people with nothing to offer suck in galaxies of attention only to get in line for a second siphon. What she offers in two albums, most musicians don’t amass in their entire catalogs. In My Own Time is just the sort of thorny transcendence we seek out in sad songs: the comfort of another voice willing to beacon truthfully in what can be the icy and lonely wasteland of the human heart.