Throwing Muses, “Sunray Venus” (dir. Orrin Anderson)
The first thing everybody says about Kristin Hersh’s lyrics is that they’re surreal. This is both true and not. She’s written her share of direct, quotable lines (my favorite: “excuse me, a doormat is good honest work”), but reading a Throwing Muses lyrics page is sometimes like reading a couple sheets of particularly dense poetry: images scratching up other images, names that don’t explain themselves, nothing conducive to easy categorization.
What you’ve got to realize, though, is every image and every name means something very specific in Hersh’s world, like a memoir you read in torn-out sentences or a film you watch by flicking your eyes open every few minutes. We all have these, left untranslated in our remembrances. A duffel bag in the corner, a raggedy Halloween ghoul, dots on a subway map, a road to the water. These mean nothing to you and everything to me.
It’s one of the reasons I like interactive or otherwise experimental fiction: it lets you expand. You can look at a city block and draw out the centuries of memories people put there in secret, you can extrapolate drafts and demos from a finished product, you can read one story and draw out the stories it conceals. It’s one of the greatest rewards of following an artist for years, particularly one so concerned with personal mythology; every work multiplies itself with context.
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All this runs the risk that most biographical criticism does, but Hersh’s work does reward it. Every so often she’ll stop to explain a song. Sometimes you have to be there at the time; before one performance of “Pearl,” for instance, she told half the story behind “you have a back like Marie.” (Who Marie was, at least. The performance is on YouTube — I’ve posted it before — but this part isn’t.) Sometimes you can go back and reread: most of Hersh’s work since 2007 or so came with tour diaries or essays, although some are lost to the Internet Archive.
A lot of it’s in Rat Girl. Every scene’s annotated with lyrics like footnotes — as one writer put it, “a hundred little epiphanies and the mental clicks of puzzle pieces fitting together.” Lucy Cage cites a fan favorite: the Muses’ lead track from 4AD’s Lonely is an Eyesore compilation, ”Fish,” which begins like an MFA lesson on hook sentences: ”I have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall / it sings to me with glassy eyes and quotes from Kafka….” I’ve read a number of things calling this drugged-out Christ imagery, and maybe that’s what it means, but what it more immediately means is that there was a point in Hersh’s life where there was a fish nailed to a cross on her apartment wall.
Cage also mentions ”Hate My Way,” whose intro is near-verbatim from some brocialist pamphlet. It’s in a totally different style because it’s from a totally different inner world, and the song’s self-referential: ”I put you into a song — I can’t rise above the church.” There are a lot of songwriting quirks like that. The original tracklisting of Crooked (some of which were secretly Purgatory/Paradise demos) is full of repeated images, recurring motifs, the stuff of a novel without the substance of its telling.
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The video to “Sunray Venus” is basically a lyrics video. It’s hard to shake the suspicion, in 2013, that lyrics videos are subsidized employment for graphic design majors. (In 2011 it was hard to shake the suspicion they were the result of label execs seeing the glut of “lyrics videos” for every song and deciding the takeaway was kids showing off their skills in Final Cut, rather than kids and their ersatz piracy.) And yet here’s Throwing Muses with one; 10 years have passed since 2003’s Throwing Muses, and it’s almost a shock to plug them into the 2013 hype machine. (Which is silly, because they were on a major through most of the ’90s and went through all its accompanying machinery. Most of the shock, for me, is because Hersh’s solo release Crooked got comparably little coverage, as is increasingly typical of crowdfunded albums. I got a bit of flak for saying this about Helen Marnie’s similarly crowdfunded album — which I liked! A lot! And can’t listen to anymore because I instinctively remember the hate mail — but it’s a real phenomenon, and one that’s only going to happen more and more often. It isn’t a new phenomenon, either — how many mail-order-only albums are going to make it to Spotify or digital distribution before the CDs or cassettes wear out.)
The imagery’s fun enough to watch, if you’re still entertained by cracking babies and broccoli brains and that sort of splashy pop-art (I am), but the lyrics arefascinating. "Sunray Venus" does the job, in that all the lyrics technically show up, but it’s tricky. Lyrics flicker into other lyrics once Hersh stops singing. A couple lines are all mondegreens, or wordplay that might as well be: "dull light/delight," "body/party." (Hersh is fond of this; she’s mentioned in interviews being a little surprised at what lyrics sites had her supposedly writing, and one of her best song titles is "Christian Hearse," an instrumental from Learn to Sing Like a Star.) At times they’re evocative, at times they’re sardonic (“LOL OMG”), at times they’re pretty damn funny. (There’s one point where “my bad” becomes “my bod, my dad, my bar, my pad” that if you told me was a quote from Don Jon I would have believed you if that weren’t Hersh’s style. Also, don’t bother seeing Don Jon.)
"My bad" does not actually appear in the song. Neither do half the lyrics. Sometimes they’re words to instrumental sessions; sometimes they fill the spaces between verse and chorus. Sometimes they’re plainly visible, sometimes they’re half-hidden behind the pictures. They’re usually things Hersh would actually write, and in some cases she actually did. When the chorus goes “crushed underfoot,” the screen flashes a slippershell clam; that’s a reference to the chorus to "Slippershell," one of Hersh’s earliest demos for the album. After "limbo" comes "tar smoochers"; on Limbo there is “Tar Kissers.” Maybe they’re clues; maybe they’re coincidences. Maybe they’re shadow lyrics — a Magic Eye painting you have to squint to really see, a novel with all its drafts a click away in Track Changes a recording with something hidden in a too-high frequency or beneath layers of noise. Maybe they add something; maybe they’re just invitations for you to.