I made a big mistake. I thought I could talk about the first Throwing Muses album objectively enough to outline a rational explanation of why I am certain that it’s the greatest rock album ever recorded. But last night, I laid the band’s 1986 debut on my turntable, and as the needle slid between the black grooves and unleashed the skittering, manic frenzy of Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donelly’s guitars, I immediately resigned myself to failure. The first Muses album is my favorite record not because I listen to it constantly and it’s my best friend when I’m lonely and down. In truth, I listen to it about once a year because my reaction to it is so intense that it hurts a little. I can’t talk about this music. I can only feel it. It fries my rational brain and turns me into frantic, romantic mush. But therein lies the problem of analyzing one’s favorite record.
Throwing Muses were founded by two teenage stepsisters who made songs instead of diaries, and created a weird version of postpunk that can’t really be compared to anything else. I bought my first Muses album on cassette when I was a teenager myself, but it took me awhile to embrace it. At the time I was used to sweet, twee girly songs, singalong Britpop, and goth lite. My first reaction to Kristin Hersh was that she scared the hell out of me. But as the months and years passed I let her voice sink into my head, and I became convinced that—biases aside—she is the unsung genius of twentieth century music. The self-titled Throwing Muses debut is the most concentrated manifestation of the twisted sounds and imagery they were capable of leveling on the world.
Those songs! They’re fractured and furious, jerking forward and back to a frequently militaristic drumbeat (percussionist David Narcizo was in the high school marching band). With freewheeling abandon, they operate quite outside of structure, key, and narrative. Melody perpetually shifts, and the rhythm collapses in and out of time signature. The sounds are beautiful but menacing, and that sinister element is reliant purely on Hersh’s frenzied method of guitar playing, not any affectation of distorting guitar pedals. Not to mention That Voice! It’s almost embarrassingly appropriate for the intensity of the material. Kristin’s voice alternately bites, howls, and croons, constantly splitting into different tones and personalities. She sings not just for herself, but channels the voices of what haunts her.
This is not music that a couple 16-year-olds from Rhode Island should be able to make, it’s so utterly sophisticated. Or rather, it’s exactly the kind of music that teenagers should be bound to make. These songs perfectly embody the awkwardness of adolescence, all its raw emotion and gawky physicality: the sudden realization of one’s own body and not knowing quite what to do with it, how to move it around gracefully, how to sing without your voice cracking. And Kristin’s non-linear, multi-voiced narration creates a multiplicity that points to the clumsy uncertainty of our nascent teenage identity.
This problem of the body is everywhere, as in the first line of “Vicky’s Box”, particularly beloved by Muses fans: “He won’t ride in cars anymore, it reminds him of blowjobs, that he’s a queer”. Who writes things like that?! A blonde, teenage girl from New England? Who is this girl who screeches madly “A! KITCHEN! IS! A! PLACE! WHERE! YOU PREPARE!” [and then wearily moans] “. . . and clean up . . .” Who else but a woman who had her first child at 19 and continues to tour with every baby she pops out, Stratocaster straddled across an eight-month-pregnant belly: yet another reason why Kristin is my hero.
Throughout the album, Hersh offers sad and bitter soundbytes of splintered identity and teenaged frustration: “I only love pieces of things that I hate”. But if the album has a masterpiece, it comes in at track three, “Hate My Way”. It is here that all the anger one exerts upon the world turns in on itself and mutates into a vicious cycle of self-contempt. The song opens on just Hersh’s voice and a guitar riff punctuated by silence as she lays out a laundry list of reasons to be pissed off at the world: “I could be a smack freak and hate society, I could hate God and blame Dad . . .” and so on, until she finally resigns herself to the cul-de-sac of self-centered despair: “No, I hate my way”.
In writing this, I realize that without hearing the music it would be easy to cast Kristin off as a Morrissey-esque misery-monger, but the feeling she conveys is far from a lackadaisical “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” sentiment. With Hersh, it’s a self-critique of how paralyzing those emotions can be. Moreover, Morrissey’s ennui seems little more than a product of suburban boredom, whereas Kristin is releasing the very real demons and doppelgangers that we bury within.
It becomes tempting to read the songs on this album as documents of Hersh’s bipolar disorder, which was at a sort of peak when these songs were put to tape. But that might be too simplistic a reading. Kristin herself put it best in the liner notes for the 1998 re-release of the album: “It has been suggested that I was insane during the Muses early days, something I have vehemently denied in my effort to prove that this stuff could come out of our girlfriends, our sister, and our mothers. Listening now, I wonder if I was all there, but maybe that was the point. Our girlfriends, sisters and mothers have been known to go elsewhere at times, too.”
But like I said, I can’t talk about this music, at least not sufficiently. Throwing Muses is necessarily experiential. Listen and be changed.
// Notes from the Road
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