Kristin Hersh has built a career on fascinating and compelling lyrics that are, to put it mildly, somewhat obscure. They have always been just gut-wrenching enough in their delivery to know that something fucked-up was happening, but never clear enough to figure out just exactly what was going on. It’s a bit like watching Gone With the Wind on mute, or going to a party with the hip crowd, and hearing an inside joke; you might be able to guess when to giggle appropriately, but you never really get exactly what’s so damn funny. With Sunny Border Blue, Hersh has finally let the rest of us in on the private joke. And after four previous solo releases and eight albums (and numerous EPs) with her former band Throwing Muses, it’s well worth the wait.
Sunny Border Blue is a gorgeous, rich, accomplished collection of songs that cascade from one into another, blurring the boundaries of style and content, and providing the most honest musical and lyrical storytelling of Hersh’s critically-acclaimed career. “Candyland”, for example, examines the haunting stillness of losing custody of her now-15-year-old son when he was just three (an act she refers to elsewhere as a kidnapping), and “Flipside”, a discussion of the merits of life over death which starts with the line “There’s always drooling zombies or at least one dick.” This feels a bit like a dialogue, with Hersh convincing herself that while she may not be entirely alive, she’s definitely not dead. Believe it or not, this seemingly-simple recognition speaks volumes for Hersh’s skill as a highly-intellectual songwriter and the movement of her pathological talent. And it speaks to an overwhelming feeling of optimism on this record, despite the bitter and biting edge of the lyrics, that comes through in the damnedest of places.
In fact, one of the most spectacular elements of Sunny Border Blue is the way it plays with contrasting identities, emotions, and sounds, pulling together points on the spectrum that are usually mutually exclusive. It’s by far Hersh’s most accessible album, verging on pop, and yet, still playing with seemingly incompatible ideas. In “Summer Salt”, a song Hersh has called “as sweet a love song as I’m capable of” and one which almost sounds like something a group of girl scouts could sing around a camp fire, she sings “for a toxic thing you sure smell pretty . . . for an ugly boy you sure look pretty.” And in “Ruby”, Hersh boldly claims, “it’s easy to sleep with idiots and prophets.” Indeed it is, as Hersh’s Beauty/Danger thing plays itself out once again; the album’s opening track “Your Dirty Answer” finds Hersh singing “I’m giving up the ugly I thought you’d make pretty / I’ll be god-damned.” Indeed, beauty (and a lack thereof) is all over Sunny Border Blue, and it seems to be Hersh’s way of finally, firmly, claiming a place for herself in the world. It begs recollections to an old Throwing Muses song, “Take”, in which Hersh sings, “If you don’t think I’m pretty, I understand / Just don’t think you won’t die by a woman’s hand.” Hersh is an artist who gives until her audience wonders what could possibly be left, but always manages to take back just enough to keep the exchange alive and to fuel the ever-burning fires.
In characteristic humbleness, Hersh has blown off the fact that she plays all the instruments on Sunny Border Blue (except the drum part on her cover of Cat Stevens’ “Trouble”), stating “it wasn’t like I was playing harp or bagpipes and the drum parts aren’t exactly brain surgery.” It would be a mistake to let her convince you that this is a minor point. Never before has a Kristin Hersh release been as cohesive, consistent, and tight as Sunny Border Blue, a unifying principle that clearly owes itself to Hersh’s hands being all over this project. Even the production is seamless, almost to a fault; Hersh’s innovative and driving guitar work is frequently lost in the shuffle, and the electric version of “Spain”, when compared to the acoustic version she has been playing on her most recent tour, is definitely a case of subtraction by addition. But by an overwhelming majority, the layered instrumentation, biting vocal delivery, and kamikaze lyrics are pulled out of their brooding corners by the smoothness of the production. In fact, despite the heavy layering of sounds, Hersh’s voice is also rougher and less polished here than on anything she has done in the last 10 years.
Sunny Border Blue ends with the terrifying and soul-stripping “Listerine”, a song that mourns, among other things, the loss of Throwing Muses. Hersh is clearly still struggling with her status as a solo artist; in a recent webchat, when asked if she liked playing solo, Hersh replied, “I miss my band, I miss my band, I miss my band, I miss my band, I’m getting used to this acoustic thing.” And with “Listerine”, a song that sounds more like a Throwing Muses track than any other on the album, Hersh allows her listeners into the most private and harrowing moments of an artist’s life. When she sings, “I only wanted the spark / I only wanted your hearts,” I believe her—the song simply insists on being believed. Sunny Border Blue is a collection of songs that have life independent from their listeners, and even from Hersh herself. It’s an album that gets under your skin in a way that makes you just know it’s never crawling out. But once you’ve been let it on Kristin Hersh’s secret, you won’t want it to.