Purple is a great album and an amazing achievement on a number of levels. First off, of course, is the fact that it exists at all, three years after the UK bus crash that seriously injured all four of the group’s members only weeks after the release of their extraordinary double album Yellow & Green. Bassist Matt Maggioni and drummer Allen Blickle suffered spinal injuries that eventually necessitated their departure from the band while bandleader and singer/guitarist John Baizley was left to recover from his own severe injuries while trying to reassemble a band that had seemed on the cusp of a major commercial breakthrough. Returning with longtime lead-guitarist Peter Adams, they recruited Trans Am drummer Sebastian Thomson and bassist/keyboardist Nick Jost and began a woodshedding period and quickly focused on creating new songs to represent the next chapter of the band.
That new chapter begins with a bang. Purple is a bold and powerful next step in the band’s development, helped along by producer Dave Fridmann, who applies the big sound he has brought to career-defining albums by Flaming Lips, Sleater/Kinney, Low, and his own band Mercury Rev, to this project. On Purple, he helps the band present the most sonically direct album of their career. The depth and heaviness remain, but gone is the murkiness that enveloped the interplay of the string instruments on previous releases. Fridmann gives each individual player space and clarity in the mix and lets the band flex its muscles and show its growth in the process. Baroness is a sludge-metal band no more; they have become, with Purple, simply, one of the best hard rock bands out there. Yes, they continue to mix elements of prog and metal. Their new sound is not so much different as it is refined. In no small way, Purple calculatedly reaches out to the mainstream, something that fickle fans will call “sellout”, but which true fans should acknowledge as well-seasoned growth.
Baizley addressed this subject in an interview in anticipation of the new album’s release. It is a fascinating interview as one of the stars of an outsider genre expresses sincere appreciation for such insider acts as Boston, Steely Dan, and Toto along with expected influences like Queen and Metallica. Baizley worries that “We’ve become a culture of cool…. We’re all such music snobs now” and notes the potential that we’ve lost the ability to truly embrace those big, cathartic moments that music can provide.
I witnessed a bit of this during the band’s triumphant set at the Earl in Atlanta on December 13, days before Purple’s release. The tiny club was sold out and the band made up for the opening act’s absence (van troubles) by pounding through an unbroken, two-hour set mixing some early tracks, most of Yellow & Green, and five of Purple’s nine primary tracks. Baizley was fully confident, his growling voice carrying the songs forward amid waves of Adams’s uplifting guitar work while the new rhythm section of Thomson and Jost offered a more jazz-inflected backing that was no less heavy for its danceability. The crowd was receptive but oddly self-aware, shouting things like, “You must practice a lot”, “Your mothers are proud of you” and other smart-alecky, ironic jokes that Baizley gamely played along with. No disrespect was intended, and every song was met with a roar of approval, but Baizley’s comments from the interview stuck in my head as I watched and listened. Can’t the ironic pose prove an inadvertent exercise in self-control, diminishing actual feeling in the moment?Doesn’t the perpetual self-awareness of cool prevent one from experiencing the sublime, almost religious catharsis that can be had by just letting oneself go in the face of the kind of musical beast that a band like Baroness, playing at full tilt, presents? Again, this is not to criticize what was a positively receptive crowd but rather to offer reflection on the costs and rewards of our ever-changing public persona and collective practices. Baizley, in his interview, makes it plain that his enjoyment of music has only increased the more he has let his own guard down.
This is what is so refreshing about Purple. The band unapologetically attempt to reach beyond the limits of their primary genre’s audience and welcome in anyone who appreciates a good song. And there are many very good songs among Purple’s ten cuts. Like Yellow & Green before it, Purple is not a concept album, but repeated listening reveals Baizley’s songwriting returning to consistent, repeated images and themes that connect the songs in a way that makes a singular impression. While each individual cut can stand alone (with several strong singles present) the album as a piece passes as in a dream state (fitfull and nightmarish at times), a feeling amplified by the coming-out-of-the-ether airiness of the instrumental, “Fugue”, and the brief, odd closing track, “Crossroads of Infinity”.
Images of spinning wheels, of drowning, and of looking to the stars for guidance that never comes are repeated throughout the album’s ten songs. Album opener “Morningstar” sets a tone of post-defeat survival with its contention that we are all “tinder-wood / Bound for the fire” and the hollow reassurance offered in the acknowledgment that “The captain was gentle / He left you alive”. The battle imagery continues with “Shock Me” and its dream of “a great calamity” but then shifts abruptly, as dreams do, to the dominant theme of the album, that of being unable to breath under a weight, or of drowning outright. Six of the album’s cuts make some use of this symbol. “And as my lungs deflate”, Baizley sings on “Try to Disappear”, “You help me suffocate / We have no need to breathe” while later, on “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain?)”, he welcomes the listener to “Take a dive / Fill your lungs with summer rain”, an offering promising both peace and disquiet as an unspoken ending approaches. The stars offer no guidance, though they are repeatedly called to. “The polestar wheeled about my head”, Baizley sings in “Shock Me,” but by the time of “Kerosene” he finds himself “Lost too long above the stars.”. All the spinning, searching, drowning feelings seem to culminate in “Chlorine & Wine”, with its nightmarish images of hospitalized entrapment, the most potentially direct reference on the album to the bus crash that nearly destroyed its creators.
The beautiful and disquieting instrumental, “Fugue”, precedes “Chlorine & Wine” and offers, perhaps, a key to understanding this album’s symbolic journey. The song’s title is not simply a classification of its type (though it fills that role) but also calls to mind the term “fugue state,” that period of dissociative amnesia often associated with a significant physical trauma, wherein the sufferer experiences periods of identity loss, confusion, shame, and grief. A person in fugue state can even appear to act purposefully, taking on a completely different personality, without actually being aware of those actions. Do Baizley’s dream-like songs on Purple deliberately follow a sort of fugue state, a symbolic representation of the trauma suffered in the aftermath of the horrible accident and the turmoil of his recovery? There is certainly a quality of multiple personality in the album’s dream-like lyrics, of one self acting and feeling independent of the other, which cries out for control. Think of the cries of “Please don’t lay me down” in “Chlorine & Wine” or “Open your eyes / Wake up” in “If I Have to Wake Up (Would You Stop the Rain?).” And then there’s that weird, robotic voice that closes the record on “Crossroads of Infinity”: “I’ve done it! / I’m drifting into a world of limitless dimensions!”
If Purple is a journey in search of breakthrough, its culmination is deeply personal. By its end, Baizley has let go of ego and pose, opening himself to possibility. It is a Whitmanesque personal epiphany, a revelatory rebirth.