Review by Chris Dahlen, Pitchfork
Sometimes we music writers do wrong by Kristin Hersh: we can steal her words. The press around her last album, Sunny Border Blue, honed in on a few lines that made unusually (for her) naked admissions about troubles in her life– her custody battle over her eldest son, or the break-up of the Throwing Muses– wrapped up as conveniently as when John Lennon first sang, “I don’t believe in Beatles.” It’s easy to write a story around these clear-cut revelations, but reading the words denies you the chance to hear her tell it herself, which is far more powerful.
The Grotto doesn’t even come with a lyric sheet, or anything else that could shortcut Hersh’s enthralling delivery on one of the starkest albums she’s ever recorded. Sunny Border Blue was solid, but it was also easy-going, with even the toughest lyrics set in tuneful pop. This time, she’s changed course to release two of her most extreme discs: the startling Throwing Muses reunion, which in New England parlance is “wicked loud,” and its complement, this quietly blinking acoustic album.
Her voice, raspy and harsh against the gently ringing acoustic guitar, makes you expect a gloomy, even maudlin disc. But that can distract from what makes it great: its ambiguity, the way she expresses herself in such strangely personal terms yet never settles on an emotional tone. She weaves domestic themes (family, love and marriage, alcohol, child-rearing) into pieces that come out so fully formed it’s almost easier to take them individually than as an album. Yet as careful as they sound, they don’t reach many answers. She reportedly joked to her husband, “These songs seem to be about how I can’t leave you,” and that would be a pretty concise explanation– but anybody who’s been married knows there are hundreds of ways to stay together.
Her words drop like lead weights. Take the opening statement of the captivating “SRB”: “Headfirst into the headboard/ I’m shatterproof.” Or the album’s first song, “Sno Cat”, which is a scattering of images and scenes from a marriage. Other songs are more impressionistic, though never as abstract as, say, the strangest stuff on Hips and Makers; her voice can rise from a rough, direct tone, to the guttural wails that trail across “Vitamins V”, and then to a pace that’s almost hypnotically introverted– like “Ether”, which lilts in circles at a slow, methodical pace. And that’s not to say that every track is so serious, but not even the lighter ones sound casual: there’s a heavy silence between these notes.
While the words may be the focus, the music is tuneful and perfectly rendered. There are beautiful moments throughout the album, like the guitar bridge of “SRB”, the twinkling piano that opens “Vanishing Twin”, or the whistling ghost town ambience of “Silver Sun”. Hersh has two strong accompanists, Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb on piano and the inimitable violinist Andrew Bird. Gelb’s playing is restrained, sometimes limited itself to a few notes at the end of a song or a quiet backing line that adds just enough sentimentality; likewise Bird, judiciously used on just a few tracks, has a perfectly yearning tone, sad without melodrama. Gelb and Bird have toured with Hersh, and even though they stay respectfully out of the spotlight you can hear their camaraderie– on “Arnica Montana”, a carefree tune that actually rollicks; or when they end the album together on “Ether”, Hersh wrapping them into her stark, introverted narrative.
The transitions from joy to isolation make clear how much ground Hersh has staked out here: even she may not understand all the feelings laid out in these songs. The most striking sections don’t describe deep crises or dramas, but spread across day-to-day life; the outcome is neither content nor bittersweet. Instead, like most of her best work, it’s stuck on the emotions she can’t decipher.