By: Will Pinfold
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Released on October 28, 2016 via Omnibus Books
Kristin Hersh’s work is endlessly fascinating and emotionally involving, in part because of the tension between the elusive meanings of her very specific but extremely enigmatic lyrics, and the direct emotional impact of her songs as music and as performances. That relationship is at its most intense on the twenty four songs that make up her ninth solo album, Wyatt At The Coyote Palace.
As with her own Crooked and Throwing Muses’ Purgatory/Paradise, the album is accompanied by a book (or vice versa, since it is being released by a publisher rather than a label) and, as before the book acts both as a work in its own right and as a kind of key to the peculiar maps of the songs themselves. As those who have read – and if you haven’t, you really should – her extraordinary autobiography Rat Girl (aka Paradoxical Undressing) and Don’t Suck, Don’t Die, her biography/memoir of the late, great Vic Chesnutt will know, Hersh excels at writing prose which is immediate, economical and packed with significant, consequential detail.
The stories/anecdotes that make up the book Wyatt At The Coyote Palace are told in the form of a dialogue between Hersh and an unnamed friend and consist for the most part of memories of near-death experiences (or events which felt like near-death experiences at the time) which have happened throughout her life, interspersed with the song lyrics, with which the stories often (but not always) intersect. Naturally, many of the stories relate in one way or another to her career as a touring singer and musician and, as they illuminate the songs, so the songs also enrich the stories, since the light-hearted, often humorous conversational voice of those stories is, in the songs, replaced largely by the emotionally charged interior monologue, an extremely effective contrast between ‘what happened’ and ‘how it felt while happening’ although the connection between songs and prose is rarely as black and white as that.
As a collection of songs, Wyatt… is rich and varied and, as with most of Hersh’s solo work, troubled and troubling, rather than revealing or easily satisfying in a verse-chorus-verse pop song kind of way (though many of the songs are catchy). It’s a true solo album too, with Kristin playing all of the instruments (and even making some of them), creating a richly textured tone, perfectly captured by a mix that feels warm and intimate even at its most harsh. Beautifully immediate (and even better through headphones) the key elements are the warm, close-up sound of the strummed and picked acoustic guitars and Hersh’s always-remarkable voice, which is at this point pretty much perfectly balanced between expressiveness and musicality and embodies the sardonic melancholy, drama, self-doubt, bitterness and humour of her lyrics.
It’s a long album, with many highlights and nothing remotely approaching filler, building instead to a kind of all-embracing inclusiveness, reinforced by the use of found sounds, conversation and noise, recorded during Hersh’s travels. Paradoxically, these half-heard background noises both free the album from its studio-bound sound and also reinforce the sometimes obsessive, claustrophobic sense of being inside someone else’s head. The album’s identifiable themes; miscommunication, self-loathing, love, drugs, travel, children, world-weariness – life – enhance the impression that the listener has been given access to the interior monologue of the artist through bad times, good times, boring times. When, on the powerful and punky ‘Killing Two Birds’ she sings “I can’t feel a thing anymore”, the whole album refutes the statement.
All albums are records; that is, the record of a specific period of time spent recording in a specific place; and Wyatt at the Coyote Palace takes its title from Kristin Hersh’s son’s relationship to the physical area around the studio where the album was recorded, during a tumultuous few years in the singer’s life. It’s an apposite title; although the songs are mostly not concerned with the daily minutiae of the recording process, they are informed by the circumstances of their writing and recording, a kind of telescoping of the past into the present to make a song which has its roots in a specific event, perhaps many years in the past, but which hasn’t truly been concluded until it has been processed, written and recorded.
Kristin Hersh’s solo albums have always been intensely and closely personal compared to her work with Throwing Muses and 50FOOTWAVE and, as stated above, Wyatt… is no exception. That’s not to say though that, even with the addition of the book, her work is revealing or ‘confessional’ in the manner of a diary, or even less an obvious kind of ‘therapy through music’. It’s more complicated than that; a kind of 1/1 scale depiction of events via feelings and images which are all the more vivid for being oblique. In fact, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace makes it clear (again) that although the long-standing analogy between Kristin Hersh and Sylvia Plath may have initially been made for mostly shallow, lazy journalistic reasons, there is a real kinship in the way the writers process and distil their experience into art. As with Plath, the emotional intensity of Kristin Hersh’s work invites curiosity about her life, but although the biographical facts are easily available for those who want to read about them, in the end it’s her art that communicates her individual experience most vividly.
In a discography that has grown richer and deeper over the years, this may be Kristin Hersh’s finest work to date and demonstrates that, in an industry/society that is obsessed – especially where female performers are concerned – with youth, image and tabloid-worthy sensation – being a grown-up woman with children and unromantic responsibilities and all the complexities of an adult life, might just be the most revolutionary thing an artist can be.