Vocalist and songwriter Madigan Shive is a powerhouse in her own world, and Bonfire Madigan’s latest release, Saddle the Bridge, sets out to prove Shive’s masterful dominance, just in case there were any doubters hanging on after BMad’s debut, ...from the Burnpile. On an album dominated by Shive’s virtuoso cello performance and the perfectly balanced percussion work of Tomas Palermo, Saddle the Bridge is at once subtle and intense, soft-spoken and gut-wrenching. It invokes the wailing power of Sinead O’Connor at her best, and the lyrical delivery of the brilliant Kinnie Starr. Bonfire Madigan has a musical sound that is raw and powerful while kicking the guts out of any listener who gives more than a casual ear to the lyrics. And in the middle of all this, it manages to be truly unique and utterly superb.
Shive’s real strength is in her melodies. Songs soar at the most inopportune moments, exactly when the well-trained musical ear expects them to go precisely where they don’t. It’s a bit of work, listening to this album. The harmonies are rich without stifling the thick and mature musical palimpsests giving birth to themselves as the songs progress, moving through all the usual places as well as the unexpected moments of downright sublime transendence. This isn’t an album meant to be background music; to really appreciate the beauty and rage in Saddle the Bridge requires an active listening, and an open receptacle for the mental fallout that often accompanies such a masterpiece of music and voice. But it’s worth every effort required, with spare change left over.
In fact, Shive has a truly unique control over her vocal performance, recreating the term “Diva” and staking her claim with the likes of PJ Harvey, Johnette Napolitano, and even Linda Perry. She often sounds like some anemic Siren as she wails, on the opening “Mad Skywriting (Rachel Ruth’s Song)”: “Here now—hear this now / I am not sorry for being here now,” a fiercely unapologetic anthem that sets up the rest of the album as a dialog of anger and frustration meeting the absolute glory of serenity. She manages to meld the subtlety of emotion with the absolute force of will that accompanies a purity of voice and harmony. In other words, Bonfire Madigan is what would happen if Enya was Tai food.
Not since The Geraldine Fibbers has a string instrument been put to such fierce and intelligent use as in tracks like “Where the Sky Below Meets the Sea Above,” “Running,” and “The Debut and Debauchery of Anna Magdalena,” the latter of which contains a Lucille Clifton poem that somehow manages to be haunting instead of pretentious. Fiona Apple could take some lessons from Bonfire Madigan, as could most of the post-Courtney Love female vocalists out there trying so desperately to sound tough and smart at the same time. Shive rarely screams out—she doesn’t have to—but it’s never hard to hear the spit boiling in her throat, and her brilliant use of the cello only serves to emphasize her balanced attack on those around her, and herself.
While there a few moments of misguided but well-intentioned cacophony here (“Rachel’s Song,” with its radio dial samples, makes its point well enough without ever being truly listenable), and perhaps a slightly self-indulgent tinge to much of the second half of Saddle the Bridge, it is, nevertheless, one of the stand-out releases of the last six months. While surface comparisons abound, Bonfire Madigan is truly in a league of their own. Infusing a perfect meld of poetry and deliberate rawness, blending some of the finest musicianship to ever come out of Kill Rock Stars and the gorgeous and haunting lyrics of a master, Saddle the Bridge is poised to raise the bar for everyone from Charming Hostess to Tori Amos. The only question that remains is who will raise it for Bonfire Madigan.