If rock and roll was a building on fire and I could save only one thing, it would be Kristin Hersh. Her new LP, Possible Dust Clouds (out today on Fire Records), is a pretty good example of why that is. Her first band, the ever visceral Throwing Muses, were a singular outfit. Characterised by abrupt and confusing changes in tempo, and by jagged, acrobatic chord progressions, they were always something different, even by the supposedly individualistic standards of late ’80s / early ’90s indie rock, and Red Heaven and Limbo stand as two of the best albums of the era. Hersh’s first solo release, 1993’s Hips and Makers, was scaled back, more intimate in its textures without sacrificing the essential strangeness of her vision. Since then she’s alternated between releasing solo albums and working with her bands, the Muses, and the effervescent blast of surf punk noise that is 50FOOTWAVE, always uncompromising and never for the faint-hearted.
She’s joined by a full band on Possible Dust Clouds, and it’s obvious from the first chords of ‘LAX’ that it’s going to be a very different proposition from the sprawling enigma that was 2016’s Wyatt at the Coyote Palace. Where Wyatt was all about complex layers of field recordings and intimate musical textures, Possible Dust Clouds is Hersh as a venomous, fast approaching storm cloud. Even in its relatively laconic moments, such as the guitar solo that unfolds about halfway through ‘Gin’, or the tense, husky opening verse of ‘Fox Point’, it captures the sinewy energy of one of her gigs. You can sense that fixed, otherworldly stare, her head snaking back and forth hypnotically. Not that there are many moments of calm. ‘Fox Point’ soon takes itself apart with a powerful turbine of a guitar riff, a squall of feedback and a sociopathic swagger: “Baby, baby, your new adventure will be mind-blowing”.
As usual, the lyrics are opaque. In a revealing interview for Stereogum, Hersh spoke about how, for her, a real song can be a dead-end for the intellect because,
“… it’s not trying to have a conversation with you. It’s spitting out images and action and cause and effect. And it’s a ride you have to take.”
and the songs on Possible Dust Clouds read like glued together fragments of experiences, unprepossessing impressions animated by the bare force of her voice. So ‘No Shade in Shadow’ and ‘Halfway Home’ which follows it are as clear as facts, but you’d be sore pressed to interpret those facts. It’s all in the attitude, in the best possible sense of that word. And I think it’s good to be faced with something that just is what it is, defying you to get it as if you could interpret a breeze or a crack in the wall. There’s a sense of a life behind it, of stories and drama, movement and landscapes (“get away from me / get the hell away from me,” she growls on ‘Halfway Home’), but grabbed at urgently, noted, experienced, and thrown into music.
On this unruly beast of an album, Hersh herself sounds relatively calm and peaceful. Still an intense presence, she never detonates the ear- and soul-splitting vocal howl that sounds like it could make the rains come. It’s all in the band this time and in particular the prowling sense of menace she coaxes out of her rhythm section. The bass guitar and drums loom out of the darkness in ‘Tulum’ and ‘Breathe’, and convey the sweaty, muscular tension of live performance. When ‘Tulum’, a tale of tequila and freakouts finally breaks, it’s like a song floating above a stampede; “lying in a Mexican mortuary / finally found your future / extraordinary calm”. To turn an ungainly looking couplet like that into something approaching a chorus requires lightness, and Hersh sounds free to back off a bit and let the stuff she’s written do the work, to allow her friends and family back into the songs.
Kristin Hersh has made a record that sounds like an older, irascible cousin to Limbo or Red Heaven era Muses. Fans will find a lot to occupy themselves with, and for the uninitiated, it’s an excellent jumping on point. She’s never sounded more direct. Where its predecessor, nearly five years in the making, could sometimes creak under its own majestic weight, Possible Dust Clouds sounds like it was made in the course of a single, sweltering road trip with her best friends, and we’re damn lucky to be invited along too.