Proto-goth goddess Lydia Lunch has long been mistress of her own kitsch genre, reciting in her tough, ceaselessly sarcastic croak her bathetic tales of masochistic women and the men who kick them. Her roots lie in the New York No Wave scene: She sang for the pioneering noise-rock band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and she collaborated with a veritable who’s who of ‘80s rock iconoclasts, including members of Sonic Youth, the Swans, the Birthday Party, Foetus, Einsturzende Neubauten. Through her spoken-word performances and her appearances in R. Kern’s pseudo snuff films, she perfected her confrontational persona as a dark, troubled transgressive, and she has never strayed from it since. She likely imagines herself the female Tom Waits, but she’s never had his musical imagination or his emotional range; Lunch generally sticks to the narrow nihilistic isthmus between desperation and surrender, and delivers the voyeuristic satisfaction to be found there, of listening with covert envy to someone unrepentantly wallowing in her own depravity.
Whatever edge Lunch’s shtick might once have had, it’s totally stripped away now, though what’s left is satisfying the way good pornography can be, eschewing nuance and complexity in order to press the same sordid, predictable buttons, all while managing not to be completely bereft of imagination. On Smoke in the Shadows, which was recorded in southern California during three separate sessions in 2002 and 2003, Lunch edges even further into self-caricature, as the photos in the CD booklet confirm: first she’s prostrate on the floor chugging from a half-gallon whisky bottle, then she’s slung over a divan holding a pistol, then she’s naked in an unmade bed with hundreds of empty ammunition shells scattered about.
These noir clichés find their counterpart in the music, which splits between the classic fifties-soundtrack jazz atmospherica (bleating saxes, vibraphones, walking bass lines, cymbal washes) once used in B movies to conjure the urban jungle, and its contemporary hip-hop-inflected equivalent (intricate programmed beats, loops of menacing noises, rapid-fire lyrical delivery), with detours into Afro-Cuban fusion (“Touch My Evil”), languid funk (“Smoke in the Shadows”) and sassy trip-hop (“Blame”). Almost too pat, Lunch’s band, easily the most conventionally adept group of musicians she’s ever worked with, executes the styles they’re shooting for perfectly, creating a palpable ambiance that suits Lunch’s predilections to a tee. The band’s as adept at hitting their marks as Lunch is in delivering her standard, detective-fiction-derived quotable lines: “The scene of the crime could be anywhere at anytime,” “You know the only way you’re leaving me baby is in the trunk of a car,” “What is love without the pain.” When she tries to rap, her flow leaves much to be desired, but this is still Lunch’s most listenable record since Queen of Siam, but since she’s no longer capable of (or interested in) surprising us or conveying convincing vulnerability, it lacks anything as truly chilling as “Mechanical Flattery.”
But Smoke in the Shadows succeeds on entirely different terms. By assuming the stereotypes so unabashedly, Lunch makes music that permits easy vicarious identification. It’s classic exploitation pulp, playing on conventional prudery to administer a predictable kick. Like the B noirs and the biker movies and the sex horror films she is clearly inspired by, this album quickly puts you in its seedy mood and allows you to pretend for its duration that you’re living for nothing but kinks and danger. Appropriately, the lyrics repeatedly evoke role playing, game playing, and pretense, the shifting power relations that interdependent fantasies always call into being. As confusing and threatening as these motifs can often be in real life, here they are playfully explicit, simplified for painless consumption so we can enjoy the inherent drama of, say, being on a heroin jones or having a lover lie to you, without having to experience the misery.
Like all noir, her stories hinge on the conflation of love with crime, allowing us to shift our own romantic disappointments to a far more exciting register and make those all too familiar feelings of rejection or exasperation buzz with new excitement and portent, to make them seem life or death again rather than old news. Transmogrified by Lunch’s single-minded focus on crimes of passion, everyday heartbreak can come to seem extraordinary again. For all her darkness and her posturing, Lunch is never cynical, in the end, she’s never disillusioned from the sweet adolescent fantasy about love, always implicitly insisting that it can be the end all and be all of life, forever worth killing and groveling for.