Jarboe is a human being, no different from you or me. She feels things—she feels rage, love, sorrow, and even on occasion, a subdued joy. She is just as likely to let out a caressing whisper as she is a primal scream. Reminiscing on her past, she betrays a sense of conflict, balancing regret and anger with wistful longing for the feelings the past had given her. She poses, naked and apparently half-dead on her album cover, hands gripping a barred window, the only source of light in an otherwise dark room.
All right, maybe she’s a little different from you and me.
Anhedonia, by definition, is the absence of pleasure or the ability to experience it, (thank you, www.dictionary.com). Anhedoniac, the original version of which was released to a mail-order only audience in 1998, was Jarboe’s first solo album after the 1997 death of Swans, to that point her primary and most well-known musical outlet. In that band, her voice and artistic vision lent a female sensibility to Michael Gira’s often oppressive brutality, though in this case, the words “female sensibility” didn’t always mean a softening of the proceedings. Rather, her presence allowed Swans to portray a full range of human emotion, whether Gira and Jarboe were decrying the sad state of the world or exploring their own ultimately too-fragile relationship.
As such, it’s inevitable that Anhedoniac deals with the emotions that surrounded the demise of Swans; indeed, its stark album cover betrays a clear sense of entrapment, and the title itself continues that theme. To put an all too simple spin on it, it would seem that being in Swans just wasn’t fun anymore.
This reissued version of Anhedoniac contains two exclusive bonus tracks, both new versions of album closer “I’m a Killer”, that push the total running time of the album past the 79-minute mark. Interestingly enough, they’re not simply tacked on to the end, as bonus tracks on reissues so often are—instead, an a cappella version of “I’m a Killer” now opens the CD, as an all-instrumental version closes it, a wordless epilogue to the story of this album. It’s a telling choice of track placement, as the opening track is generally some sort of definitive statement about an album. Also interesting is just how much harsher and more difficult the a cappella version of “I’m a Killer” is than the original album version, as the pretty folk stylings that ground the original and form the entirety of the instrumental are nowhere to be seen, and the screams and growls of the many swirling tracks of vocals take center stage. With backing music absent, the fragile listener has nowhere to hide from Jarboe’s wrath. This track placement, when combined with the self-loathing of the song’s lyrics, puts Jarboe’s own guilt in regards to the demise of her professional and personal relationship at the forefront, and the result is difficult and haunting.
The rest of the album is a journey through myriad musical styles and human emotions. The title track evokes medieval Europe in its instrumentation, while the lyrics and twisted singing evoke intense despair, through imagery like “a velvet box of his disease” and “fishes eating up to my skull”. “The Cage” is repetitive industrial dirge, all droning guitars and sparse percussion. “Sinner” is gentle folk guitars giving way to orchestral doom and gloom. “Not Noah’s Ark” is a collage of guttural groans and ear-piercing screams, punctuated by a short, disturbing narrative at its end. Perhaps most telling is “Circles in Red Dirt”, a spoken-word piece with a protagonist named “Michel” (French for, what else, “Michael”), a tale of an intimate relationship always tinged with knives and hues of red. Various noisy bits provide transition, giving the album a cohesive, if slightly schizophrenic feel.
Anhedoniac is an intensely personal work of art, the sort of album that serves as something of a diary of its creator. In fact, it’s personal to the point of being awfully close to uncomfortable to listen to; the musical ideas are always original and often very well-done, but they invariably take a back seat (we’re talking third row here) to the various manifestations of Jarboe’s voice and lyrics. It’s an incredibly difficult, yet largely fulfilling listen, the sort of album that’s bound to leave its target audience exhausted and satisfied. If you’re the type of listener who values human emotion over things like beats and melodies, Anhedoniac will be intensely rewarding. For anyone else, caveat emptor.