Throwing Muses, now officially a three-piece of Kristin Hersh, Bernard Georges and David Narcizo, seem to have broken-up and reformed more times than most, but this could not be further from the truth. The band reformed ten years ago after disbanding in 1997, when Hersh went solo (her début Hips And Makers is astonishing and always reveals something new on repeat listens), but Throwing Muses has always been 'her' band and her passion. The early nineties began with the last album to feature Tanya Donelly, The Real Ramona - easily one of the best Throwing Muses albums, before Red Heaven and University complete the impressive trilogy. Since then, music has been sparse and uneven. It's been ten years without material and the release of 2003's eponymous album (released to coincide with the Hersh's more interesting solo album The Grotto) and reuniting with Donelly got fans hoping for a full reformation. Hersh has continued her solo work but has now returned to Georges and Narcizo to make Purgatory/Paradise.
Purgatory/Paradise is twenty-four songs, eight in two parts and scattered (seemingly) randomly across the album in thirty-two fractured pieces. This lack of 'album structure' and apparent chaotic nature of the song order is frustrating but this creates a quirky charm as familiar reprises and sounds re-emerge at different points, throughout over an hour of music. The songs are dark and atmospheric, moody and thoughtful with highs and lows, and ebbs and flows. What else from such a unique and compelling band lead by a singer who feels that she doesn't write music and lyrics, she channels them from some higher power. This isn't ego-tripping so much as an inability to accept her genius. And to complement this, Purgatory/Paradise is both unique and compelling, and quite brilliant.
The early highlight is the superb guitars and vocals of Sunray Venus. Hersh is magnificent, as she reveals the land 'where no-one remembers to pray', as are the guitars to finish. Opiates, with rushing verses, then slower, repeated refrain: 'that's no way to bring a body down', is either a stark warning or a guide to cold turkey; the acoustic guitars and drums magnificent throughout. And a good example of a Throwing Muses pop song, Freesia, has more great guitar-work, while Lazy Eye is more riff than content with raw emotional vocals from Hersh. But the best of the 'complete' songs is the powerful Slippershell - Hersh sings 'Hard to say it's hard luck, when you're so happy. Hard to say it's hard luck, when we had it coming...'. Then Milan blends more of the same, but building to a delicate finish.
Within these highlights are eclectic shards, like pieces of a stained-glass window smashed across a stone floor. Film is all big vocals and piano, Hersh sneering. Triangle Quanitico is piano-led 'jazz', Bluff is a slow piano ballad with Hersh's fragile vocals, and Walking Talking is the start of a much longer song that fades before it starts. Terra Nova adds strings and beautiful vocals, and Hersh asks: 'what kind of loser chooses a swan-dive over a swansong?'. Static brings together multi-vocals and guitars while Speedbath starts like the middle of a 35 minute Neil Young and Crazy Horse solo, with dark and muddy guitars, and a slow fade.
And of the split songs, Morning Birds is a fuzzy guitar break from start, crashing drums and cymbals, layers of circular vocals form the intro and then a fragile start-stop vocal melody. Part 2 continues, more robust and structured. Dripping Trees is gorgeous vocals/harmonies and guitar work, in two parts, and the chaos of Blurry mixes wonderful guitar work, obscure provocative lyrics to a multi-vocal ending, and part 2 continues with lighter guitars but louder voice. Smoky Hands starts with delicate guitars, then lazy drums, while part 2 adds a short guitar solo. And with Sleepwalking, part 1 (appearing near the end of the album, after part 2) is hard, fuzzy guitars and harsh vocals, yet part 2 (the third track) is completely different.
Purgatory/Paradise is a reminder that Throwing Muses are still here, with very nearly a perfect return. It's a challenging listen; just as you get hold of a song, it drifts away or ends abruptly to move on to the next idea. The effect is like a dream within a dream in which the dreamer is switching channels constantly and even within the same songs, the arrangements start and stop, head in a different direction, or do something unexpected. This is strange, even by Throwing Muses standards, but it works beautifully as an idea and a collection of songs. And the stand-out 'complete' songs emerge magnificently from within. Purgatory/Paradise is frustratingly fragmented, brilliantly beguiling and weirdly wonderful.