Sunny Border Blue
By: Eric Greenwood
"I wanted you to sleep with her and hate yourself instead of me/I wanted you untrue, hating yourself like me" ("Spain"). Kristin Hersh has never been one to mince words, but Sunny Border Blue finds her in a much darker place than usual, and if you're at all familiar with her past albums- that's a scary prospect to say the least. On her last album, Sky Motel, Hersh actually seemed somewhat at peace- as much as a bi-polar woman with well-documented mania can be. Even Sky Motel's artwork was bright. Neon colors graced the cover while she sang of her superstitions and insecurities with that unforgettable wail, and it was as calm and graceful as Hersh has ever been- only slightly less disconcerting than her previous solo work.
If Sky Motel was one step forward in terms of sanity then Sunny Border Blue is two giant steps backward- back into the type of paranoid darkness that fueled so many years of the Throwing Muses. Hersh is back to flaunting her hysteria, and – I am ashamed to admit – it's honestly a welcome return to form. As much as I'd like to see her happy, I don't think it would facilitate a fruitful solo career. Musicians prove over and over that pain produces the best art. There's just something hypnotic and forbidden about wallowing in someone else's depression. Art shouldn't be a pastime, and sadly for Hersh (but lucky for you and me) it's not.
Hersh's severe bangs and distant gaze on the cover of Sunny Border Blue bear and an uncanny resemblance to pictures of Sylvia Plath in the final year before her suicide. I've always thought of Hersh as a modern day version of Plath, despite the physical likeness in the picture. Hersh's hyperbolic expressiveness recalls Plath's wild exaggerations in her poetry, but, where Plath lacked a proper outlet, Hersh has the benefit of immediate release through her music. As you've invariably seen reported in anything ever written about Hersh, she's always claimed that her songs just come to her fully formed, often in the middle of the night, so that she has to hash them out on her guitar before she can go to sleep again. The sudden mood shifts and cathartic releases on Sunny Border Blue give credence to this claim as the songs often follow the illogical paths of dreams.
"It's not my fault you don't love me when I'm drunk" Hersh exclaims in "Your Dirty Answer" while her lucid alter ego coos "carry me" in a child-like refrain in the background. Such is the dichotomy of Hersh's persona. The part of her that lashes out is severe and dominating, but buried beneath the flash is always the same vulnerable woman. "Spain" is the perfect example of Hersh's Jeckyll and Hyde persona. She builds her restrained vocals over clear and clean acoustic guitars while weird electronic white noise patters in the background. Her sudden explosion is more dramatic than the typical stomping of a distortion pedal. Here Hersh wails as a rumbling, wiry bass line kicks in. Her voice is stinging and somewhat frightening- never sounding like a put on. The galloping riff is at once menacing and catchy, while Hersh, seemingly possessed, spews some of her most vindictive lyrics (see opening quotation).
"37 Hours" marries sophisticated production techniques with a spiraling lullaby. The song examines a well-worn relationship: "I don't want this to be over/you're what I do every day/the only thing that makes sense." As inextricably bound to the relationship as she is she still feels lost and disconnected: "I don't know where I am/plus, I don't know when I am cause you insist on using fucked up military time/cause you are better off alone." Again accompanied by acoustic guitars, pattering percussion, and an electronic presence, Hersh cuts through the gauze of her effects-laden vocals with dead-pan honesty: "the day I quit smoking I heard some advice from above: ducking under, cramming it in isn't falling in love."
The only thing separating her solo work from that of her catalogue with the Throwing Muses is the instrumentation. In Throwing Muses there was always a need to rock. Hersh doesn't heed that burden in her solo work. On the surface her solo songs probably seem as quiet as they sound, but as she proves repeatedly on Sunny Border Blue, her caustic approach to songwriting can be just as potent without distorted guitars. "William's Cut" adds credence to that theory. "How many times can you get fucked/in how many different ways/you separate the good guys from disaster/and it's even sadder/I lost every hope I ever had/cause I like it too much." Only a faint organ and her acoustic guitar underpin such oddly personal ruminations.
Every single song holds up a magnifying glass to the fucked up minutiae of her life. Even the upbeat ones. It's not depressing to listen to so much as it is purgative. Hersh has the uncanny ability of showing you all the broken pieces without wanting any sympathy. She fully understands what's happening in her life, and the very act of expressing it is all the help she needs. Sunny Border Blue sounds exactly like a Kristin Hersh album- no surprises for the initiated. But there's no such thing as too many good songs, and Sunny Border Blue will go down as her finest album outside of the Throwing Muses because it's her finest batch of songs. As long as she can stand dissecting her own life while staying sane enough to put it all on tape, there's no question as to whether I'll keep listening.