The Fantasy Worlds of Mary Timony

Last week I went to a live show by myself for the first time to see Ex Hex, Mary Timony’s latest band whose first album, Rips, was my favorite of last year. I don’t really love shows for a lot of reasons, so if I ever go to one, it’s a fairly ringing endorsement of the people involved. In this case, Timony has been one of my favorite artists for years, and it was worth putting up with all the dumb parts of live shows to see Ex Hex’s set.

Timony is having a bit of a resurgence in popularity lately, first as a member of Wild Flag who released one great album in 2011, and now as a member of Ex Hex, who played to a packed house on a Monday night. This comes about 20 years after her initial peak as frontwoman of Helium. Timony initially made a name for herself in that band playing the kind of noisy, guitar-driven indie rock that was common at the time, but she separated herself from the pack with her dark feminist-leaning lyrics and imagery, which was showcased in music videos for songs like “XXX” from 1994’s Pirate Prude EP and “Pat’s Trick” from 1995’s The Dirt of Luck.

Those early Helium albums hold up as some of the best rock music of that era, but Timony’s career gets more interesting after them. In 1997, the band moved in a different direction with the No Guitars EP, which fused Timony’s love of progressive rock and fantasy with their indie rock sound. They expanded on this later that year with The Magic City, a semi-concept album with a medieval fantasy theme and lyrics about dragons, space, and various other celestial topics.

The Magic City has consistently ranked among my favorite albums, and one that always makes me get on my soapbox, since I think it’s so woefully underappreciated. I remember it being one of the first albums that really showed me the power music could have as a form of escape: Timony crafted a complete world of her own, and when I listened to The Magic City, I felt like I was there. It has this mystical, strange, dark feeling I’ve never really heard in other music, while also still functioning as a rock album with real song-craft.

But while they were well-reviewed at the time, No Guitars and The Magic City have mostly fallen by the wayside, even among the relatively small niche of people who are still discussing Helium. When they are mentioned, it’s often just as a contrast to Helium’s earlier music: “their early stuff is great, but you can skip everything else.” And I think there is a general perception that Timony wasn’t playing to her strengths and indulging in random flights of fancy instead of making the music she was known for that people liked.

This criticism would dog her even more after Helium broke up and she continued to follow this fantasy theme on her first two solo albums, 2000’s Mountains and 2002’s The Golden Dove. While The Magic City had the medieval fantasy theme, parts of it still resembled music from a traditional guitar-driven rock band. When she went solo, Timony went even further away from her trademark guitar playing, instead often relying on piano and other unorthodox instrumentation, as well as singing with breathy and soft vocals compared to her more forceful Helium persona. The reaction to Mountains is perhaps best surmised by an old Pitchfork review, which gave it a 4.7 and at the end practically begged for Timony to get back to playing her guitar like she did with Helium. The Golden Dove didn’t seem to fare much better, and both these albums are virtually ignored now. Timony eventually returned to more traditional indie rock on 2005’s Ex Hex and now as a member of the band with the same name, playing the type of music most people want to hear.

I obviously am a big fan of Ex Hex, and it is fun to see Timony playing upbeat, happy music while being in the spotlight again. But there is a big place in my heart for this stretch of weird fantasy albums, which I think are total self-contained genius — moody, mysterious, fantastical, and truly individual. They fit into the traditional mold of fantasy literature, with songs steeped in metaphor as imaginary elements often stand in for real life struggles. At first, I found them difficult to listen to because they were so strange and challenging, but those traits are why I find myself coming back to them, since there is always something new to discover.

What I love most about these albums is how deeply uncool they are — few artists have spent this much energy pursuing such an obviously unmarketable vision. Progressive rock is often a punching bag for indie rock snobs, and the nerdy Dungeons-and-Dragonsy lyrics and references to animals like doves, cats, and horses made it pretty easy to dismiss her music in the way that old Pitchfork review did. But they are the albums Mary Timony wanted to make, and are an honest reflection of who she was at that time. Given Timony’s early success with Helium, there is something powerful and even inspiring about completely changing it up and making these albums, even at the obvious risk of losing her “cool factor” and alienating a reasonable chunk of her old fans. I’ll pretty much always have time for artists who really try to do something new with their music and don’t give a crap about all the other distractions.

This all gave me kind of a weird feeling when I went to the Ex Hex show — it was strange to see such a big crowd when I feel that Timony’s music has been criminally overlooked. And I couldn’t help but wonder how many people there had even heard Mountains or The Golden Dove (maybe I should have gone around and asked). Ex Hex put on a great show and are one of the best straight-forward rock bands out there right now, but I think Timony’s true legacy lies in these seldom-heard, strange fantasy albums — and the fact that she made them at all is why she will always be one of my favorite artists.

Old People Make Good Music Too

It’s no secret that music culture is obsessed with youth: blogs and review sites often center around “break-out” or “rising” artists and are usually targeting a young, often college-aged demographic of hip listeners. Music is often linked to image and coolness, and young people are decidedly better-looking and cooler than old people. This is accompanied by a similar mini-backlash against older artists, who are frequently dismissed as something like “dad rock” or have their current work ignored in favor of their classics from when they were the young people being covered by the press and listened to by the cool kids.

When I made my albums of the decade list a few weeks ago, I noticed that the top of the list was dominated by older, more experienced artists. PJ Harvey is 45, Fiona Apple is 37 and has been releasing music since she was 19, Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine is 52, Björk is 49, Kristin Hersh of Throwing Muses is 48, Kate Bush is 56, Mary Timony of Ex Hex and Wild Flag is 44. This wasn’t a conscious attempt to zig while everyone else zags — they were just the albums I liked the most from the last five years.

The common theme with all these artists is that they’ve been around for awhile. Most of them have released several albums worth of material, often fading in and out of popularity as they continued to follow their various muses. There is also a general perception with all of them that they’ve already “peaked” with albums they made when they were younger. Their albums on my list all were well-reviewed, but they weren’t appearing on the cover of magazines or whatever the equivalent of that is now in 2015. The statement my list ends up making (largely unintentionally) is that these artists still have something to say in their work, and it’s often overlooked in favor of less interesting bands that either drive more traffic to a website or can be built by whoever is hyping them.

A lot of this feeling comes from my own background as a self-proclaimed “wannabe writer.” At age 25 now, I’ve yet to feel like I have any sort of deep perspective or statement to make in anything I write, because I just haven’t lived enough — I’m still trying to figure everything out. When I write, it’s in an effort to improve my craft, and I feel with each essay or story (regardless of quality) I learn something and get better. I don’t think writing random blog posts is directly comparable to making music, but the general concept of honing the craft and constantly improving is something I think often holds.

Nearly all the albums at the top of my list had that feeling in them: they were works that the artists had been working towards for several years, and often synthesized elements of their earlier work in a satisfying way. Let England Shake tied together so much of PJ Harvey’s music, and felt like something only an experienced artist who knows exactly what she’s doing could make. The Idler Wheel… was Fiona Apple’s most confident album, a distillation of what has made her such a popular musician. M B V  was the result of an over 20 year odyssey, and drew on both My Bloody Valentine’s past while also hinting at their potential future. I’ve written enough about Vulnicura, but it goes without saying that a much younger artist couldn’t have made an album that was drawing from years of love and heartbreak.

Purgatory/Paradise is an album that was almost entirely ignored, but was really ambitious, taking Throwing Muses’ classic sound, smashing it up, and re-imagining it. Kate Bush’s 50 Words for Snow had incredibly deep storytelling, and was a vastly uncool piano-based album with songs that stretched past 10 minutes in length. It was a real crafted work made by someone who takes their art seriously and is good at it. Maybe the most interesting example is Mary Timony/Ex Hex: it was my favorite album of 2014, in part because I felt it sounded young, even though Timony is in her mid-40s. It was an energetic, fun rock album, made by someone who simply knows how to write a great song, a case of an older artist beating the youngsters at their own game.

My appreciation for these albums is part of a type of fandom that I fear is getting less common, which is being a huge fan of an individual artist and following them on their journey from album to album. I always see their careers as being like a story, and albums like these as compelling chapters in them. As the internet bombards listeners with seemingly infinite music and new artists keep being recycled to feed the hype machine, this context starts to get lost — it stops being about the artists and starts being more about whatever sells day-to-day. Each album is just used to feed discussion for a day or a week (if it’s good) and then is forgotten about because something else comes along so quickly.

It is hard to make this sort of argument without sounding jaded at “the kids these days,” and taken too far it can get into the absurd Rolling Stone territory where dinosaur rockers consistently crap out “five star albums” into their 90s. But I can’t even count how many times I’ve seen a young band get talked up, only to instantly recognize that it has nearly nothing to do with the music — it’s either because they look like a cool band or they fit whatever story a site is trying to sell. They make the “albums of the year” list once, then are forgotten about two albums later, because some other young band has taken their place.

All of this has instilled me with a lot of skepticism for any young hyped-up band, and an appreciation for artists who have proven they make music that can endure. Youth is often exciting, but in terms of actual artistic statements or expression, it’s hard to buy that so many people my age are actually making worthwhile, memorable work. Sure, there’s prodigies like PJ Harvey, who made Rid of Me when she was 24, but that’s not normal. There’s something to be said for the artists who have been honing their craft for years or even decades, like PJ Harvey now, and are still creating music that has real thought and feeling in it.

Sometimes I Play Video Games: “Gone Home”

A common debate lately surrounds whether video games can be considered art. As far as I know, the initial argument was launched by a post from the late Roger Ebert, who argued that they “could never be art” which met him with the wrath of angry gamers (who, I’ve since learned, are a crowd that doesn’t care much for criticism of their games). For a long time, I was pretty ambivalent on the subject, feeling that games often had artistic properties but lacked a certain individual purpose or statement that I tend to associate with art, or at least my definition of it.

A good example is a game like Grand Theft Auto V, which I played when it was released a couple years ago. Its graphics were absolutely stunning, featuring gorgeous scenery, realistic city streets, and characters that really moved and felt like humans. But all of this technical mastery was done in service of a go-nowhere story that just involved running around and shooting people, randomly running over pedestrians, etc. Part of why I’ve never been big on video games is I feel an enormous percentage of them resemble GTA: they’re the equivalent of blockbuster Hollywood movies that dazzle with special effects but ultimately have no real purpose or insight. When held to an art-level standard where I was looking into what it was trying to say or what its themes were beyond “wouldn’t it be cool to kill a ton of people,” most games fell woefully short.

Part of this is that, for a long time, games have been mostly marketed toward a specific demographic of over-caffeinated young boys/men, which has been associated with a lot of blood, mayhem, and explosions. In the last year, I’ve been sort of passively following the industry as critics like Anita Sarkeesian have focused on many of the long-time issues in games and have argued for increased diversity in the business. Sarkeesian has been basically under siege from the gaming community since starting her “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” series, but I see her as a true critic: someone who loves what they are criticizing, and does it because she wants everything to be better. Her goal of increasing the range of stories games can tell and improving the way characters are depicted mostly aligns with where I wish video games would go — more towards telling stories and away from senselessly blowing stuff up.

One game Sarkeesian recommended was Gone Home, the first release by The Fullbright Company, a small indie game studio in Portland, Oregon. When I played it, it was really easy to see why she recommended it: it is a game grounded in characters and story, and it proves the artistic potential video games can have when they’re not being aimed at such a narrow audience.

In Gone Home, you play from the perspective of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a 21-year-old who returns from a year of studying abroad to find her family missing from the old mansion they moved into the year before. The gameplay is exceedingly simple: you move around the house from room to room, and find little clues sprinkled around the house that allow you to piece together what happened to your family. (I should add that this all takes place in 1995 — the story kind of doesn’t work in a world of smartphones.) Most of the plot comes from journal entries you find from your younger sister Samantha, who directly tells you her story through the duration of the game.

The advantage video games have over any other medium is that they allow you to play an active part in the story — in a sense, to live it out yourself. Many games waste this potential, but Gone Home really pushes it into an interesting place. As Kaitlin, you never speak with anyone in the game, but you really inhabit the character and feel like you’re in her head as you try to piece together the game’s central mystery.

This is part of why I’m sharing as little of the plot as I possibly can: a ton of what made Gone Home a really memorable experience for me was the feeling of piecing together all of the threads myself. The game gives you a certain amount of info on a platter (some disbelief needs to be suspended at how many useful plot tidbits are just left laying around), but tons of the story takes place “off the page,” so to speak, relying on your ability to draw certain conclusions about the characters based on what they left in the house. This is an ambiguity in storytelling that I really love and had never really gotten out of a video game before.

Where Gone Home really succeeds beyond other games is in its characters — which sounds crazy, since none of them are actually on screen, and only Samantha speaks. But through the objects and artifacts in the house, I developed a real understanding of who each character was and what their motivations were. And regardless of what they did, the game portrays each of them with a tremendous amount of empathy. While many games are about good characters and bad characters, the people in Gone Home all behave like real, flawed human beings.

Gone Home is the game that really convinced me that Ebert was wrong in his initial assessment of video games, largely because it feels like a real statement. It has a lot to say about identity, family, tolerance, and the secrets people keep from others. The video game medium was also necessary for the way the creators wanted to tell this story, and part of what ultimately makes it so poignant. Despite a relatively brief amount of gameplay (I brisked through it in about three hours), Gone Home is a game that has really stuck with me in a way I didn’t think video games could.

If you want to play it and then talk with me about it, buy it at