2020 has been such a car crash of a year, we’ve got to take crumbs of comfort where we find them. And a brand new Throwing Muses album in 2020 was certainly a pleasant surprise to me. I got kind of obsessed with Throwing Muses a few years ago and have been working my way through their extensive discography, as well as Kristin Hersh’s solo material, ever since. Most recently, I’d been listening to their output from the late 1980s, to which Sun Racket sounds far more muscular and raw by comparison. What has not diminished one iota in all that time is Hersh’s fearless creativity; and the sound her band members kick out is as powerful and uncompromising as ever.
As always with Throwing Muses (apart from the sprawling double album Purgatory/Paradise) the album is punchy; most of the tracks clock in under four minutes so the whole thing is done and dusted in little over half an hour. In that time though, we’re treated to some of the most experimental tracks the band have recorded as well as a couple of thunderous rockers on a par with their early 90s heyday.
The album opens with the grungey Dark Blue, and the devastating pair of couplets, ‘If you were a sore loser, I’d be a better dreamer, And if I were a better dreamer, You’d be a dream come true’, proving the years have not blunted Hersh’s tongue – before descending into a crunchy choppy head-bobber of a tune.
As an ‘island band’, Throwing Muses’ music has always had a strong undercurrent of aquatic associations. The songs on Sun Racket were written in the aftermath of an incident where Hersh nearly drowned, having fallen asleep on the beach. This sense of slipping in and out of sleep – and dreams – and slipping underwater pervades much of the album. Bywater is particularly dreamlike, featuring a case of projected identity that only makes sense in dreams, as Hersh sings about a goldfish in the toilet…who happens to be Freddie Mercury – a ‘mustached amputee, heading out to sea’. Among such surreal poetry there’s the occasional lyric that catches you with its directness, ‘Changing clothes in the kitchen’ – the context is left unexplained but it clearly implies unusual circumstances, maybe a sense of fumbling panic or of trying not to be discovered.
Bo Diddley Bridge is a song about the bridge where her son used to fish as a child and combines buzz-saw guitars over lock-tight drums and a snaking bassline. Midway through, the song breaks down, just as the real bridge also collapsed, as well as according to Hersh, their life at the time. Thankfully both have been rebuilt, as she says, “But we lived; we swam in a life sunshine somehow. And both bridges — the Bo Diddley one and the life one — were rebuilt around us.”
The trio of tracks, Milk at McDonalds, Upstairs Dan and St Charles are some of the most stark and unusual I’ve heard from Throwing Muses. As always there’s the juxtaposition of surreal imagery with the odd lyrical bolt from the blue. Kristin Hersh currently lives in New Orleans and it feels like elements of Southern Gothic have influenced her songwriting; Milk at McDonalds is a macabre bluesy dirge, one minute the lyrics have her imagining coyotes in the freezer, or turning into a pillar of salt, and then comes the naked admission, ‘I don’t regret a single drop of alcohol’ – the song manages to sound defiant yet regretful at the same time.
Frosting is a triumphant 90s-style rocker bringing the tempo back up and waking the album from its unsettled dream-filled slumber as Hersh rasps, ‘Then I wake up and see your smiling smile’. As always, we’re not sure if she’s happy to see that smile smiling at her, if the return to the ‘real’ world is relief or disappointment – as always it’s probably a combination of both.
Despite some of its more avant-garde moments, and the tracks that recall their early 90s prime, Sun Racket sounds both fresh and unmistakably like Throwing Muses. The band have been through various line-up changes during their long career, and while Hersh is the creative glue that binds everything together, she and drummer David Narcizo and bassist Bernard Georges have been playing together for some 30 years. After that long it must be inevitable that they would share an intuitive sense of one another’s musical powers – and this shows in the way their free-flowing experimental tendencies are kept in check by super tight playing.
I’ve never heard a Throwing Muses album I don’t like so I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer. Apart from 1994’s University which remains a clear favourite, I tend to rate them all equally and Sun Racket is easily as strong as the bulk of their discography. Hersh’s singing may have become even more gravelly with the passage of time, but her lyrical voice is clearer than ever.