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2013 Favorites: Throwing Muses – “Purgatory/Paradise”

I think everyone interested in music should watch this portion of an interview with Kristin Hersh, which explains some of her thoughts on the music industry and Purgatory/Paradise, the first new Throwing Muses album in ten years. Among my favorite quotes: “Now Throwing Muses is in the studio again, making, I swear, the best record of our career because there’s nobody telling us that we’re supposed to suck” and “I don’t want to expand my audience; I want to refine it.” Purgatory/Paradise is definitely created with the latter idea in mind: the album also comes with a 64-page book that includes track-by-track commentary from Hersh and drummer Dave Narcizo along with photos of the band, making it literally seem like a gift to the band’s longtime listeners (who helped fund the project using Hersh’s CASH Music organization).

Like many bands before them, Throwing Muses have released what you could call a comeback album, with all the fears and reservations that term entails. But in an age full of half-assed reunions and nostalgia-based cash-ins, what makes Purgatory/Paradise so great is that it always looks forward — with nobody telling them they’re supposed to suck, the band is free to make some of the most original and exciting music of their careers. There are echos of their previous work throughout (along with Hersh’s music as a solo artist), but a lot of it is entirely new territory.

Purgatory/Paradise is immediately distinctive from other Throwing Muses albums (and other albums in general) because of its structure. Its 67-minute run time is sprawled over 32 tracks, many of which are under two minutes long, including several that resemble individual songs or ideas split into two parts, which Hersh likened to someone hammering the record with a mallet. Melodies quickly come and go, then suddenly return later in the album like a ghost that is haunting you. In some cases, like “Sleepwalking 1” and “Sleepwalking 2,” the second part appears before the first part. Connections between these two-parters vary: some feel like extensions of the first song, while others feel like re-imaginings that are thematically linked. This really excited the music nerd in me, who likes stuff like album sequencing and construction — playing this album on shuffle doesn’t really work, because the pieces are meant to come and go at such specific times. It also made Purgatory/Paradise one of the albums I got lost in most this year, as I attempted to piece together its fractured puzzle with each listen.

My favorite two-parter is probably “Morning Birds,” which comes roaring out of the gate in the first part with classic early-90s Throwing Muses guitar pop before shifting into an atmospheric acoustic coda that is one of the album’s most beautiful moments. A few tracks later, the acoustic part picks up again in “Morning Birds 2.” Purgatory/Paradise really feels like a career-spanning effort by the band, and these songs show the full range of styles and emotions they’ve picked up over the years.

Amid all the shattered fragments, Purgatory/Paradise does make room for traditional pop songs. “Sunray Venus” shows a rougher side of the band with an intense vocal by Hersch, while “Opiates” displays their more subdued side. “Slippershell” is the band at their most dynamic, with quiet verses exploding into a noisy chorus. Hersch’s lyrics are as cryptic as ever, which makes it hard to try to pin any specific interpretation on these songs — sometimes I like music that does that instead of trying to hit you over the head with a specific meaning.

I’ve always considered Throwing Muses to be one of the very few bands that is truly original, in part because Hersh’s voice (her literal singing voice and authorial voice) is so different from what I typically hear in music. So it’s not too surprising that Purgatory/Paradise is an album that looked and sounded like nothing else in 2013. The surprising part, for me anyway, was just how good it was — it has instantly become my favorite release by the band since 1991’s The Real Ramona, and it’s one of the few albums this year I felt really passionate about. I find it really inspirational when a band in Throwing Muses’ position chooses to continue pushing the boundaries of their art when they could easily feel content with what they’ve done in the past. While it is really geared towards people who already like the band, I hope people who haven’t heard them still give Purgatory/Paradise a shot — this is an album that deserves to be heard.

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