Kristin Hersh was pregnant with her fourth child when she wrote and recorded this achingly beautiful solo album. She was working through the aftermath of the death of someone she loved. She was also regrouping with her legendary 1990s band, the Throwing Muses, and recording the live, self-titled album that marked the end of seven years of silence for the group. It's not surprising, then, that The Grotto
is a powerful emotional cocktail, a brew of birth and death and art.
The Grotto was recorded in the fall of 2002, but it's actually more of a wintery album, sparse and pale and introspective, studded with glistening pangs of loneliness that cling like icicles to its homey, firelit family images. These songs are pretty far from the standard just-fell-in-love, maybe-going-to-break-up pop fluff. There is a decidedly ambiguous take on long-term relationships ("Snake Oil"), a handful of songs about mourning a death ("Silver Sun," "Vanishing Twin" and "Vitamins V") and a lovely, fairly upbeat song about being surrounded by your children ("Arnica Montana"). In some ways, the whole album seems to be a battle between Hersh's tough survivor optimism, which insists that "this lukewarm catastrophe is a recipe for rebirth" (in "Vitamins V") and the more battered and vulnerable voice of "Milk Street" that is "trying to shield your glass newborn from dodgeballs and aching for children that you have never seen", concluding, "It's still a tragedy." The tension between getting stopped cold by sadness and forging onward pops up within and among songs. It's an opposition that's maybe best resolved in the bare, guitar and voice-only "SRB", which ends with the lyric, "If I could grab this whirly-gig and take it in my arms / We'd persevere through what is here and mourn what is gone."
The Grotto is a very personal album, driven as much by Hersh's demons as by her raspily pure voice and minor chord guitar-work. Still it draws many of its best moments from collaboration with two exceptional musicians -- Andrew Bird on violin and Howe Gelb on piano. "Deep Wilson", for instance, cedes the whole melody to Bird. His violin snakes hypnotically around a D minor chord, while the vocals stick, far more simply, to a few adjacent notes. In the bluesy "Snake Oil", Hersh's guitar trades licks with Gelb's very subtle restrained piano. At the bridge, the instruments literally switch places: the guitar executes the kind of rhythmic arpeggios you expect from a piano player, while the piano knocks out sparse, occasional blue slides and accents that might, more traditionally, come from a guitar. Violin and piano are, I think, pretty dangerous instruments in pop music, because they veer almost unintentionally into bland sentimentality, but here they are unremittingly intense and pure and powerful.
This is an album that acquires weight and gravity as it progresses, ending in its strongest trio of songs. "Arnica Montana" is as close to a rollicking road song as you can get out of acoustic guitar and jazzy piano; it's full of honest, unhokey motherly love, the kind of wry affection that can see the monkey in a newborn and a moment later be stopped dead by his beautiful eyes. It is the album's happiest song, completely content in a moment where "The future's later / Everybody's here." "Milk Street", which follows, is a wholly different animal, all drawn-out longing for someone who is clearly not here anymore. It starts with nearly two and a half minutes of perfect dialogue between piano and guitar, interrupted just once by furiously manic strumming. Then Hersh opens with "You are good / You are kind / You are drunk all the time...but never drunk enough." You feel that there is a person on the other end of the song, someone you will never know personally, who is maybe dead now anyway, but a real living person who mattered to Hersh. The final track, "Ether", reminds me most of my favorite Kristin Hersh song -- the Stipe duet "Your Ghost" from 1994's Hips and Makers.
In reviewing the new Throwing Muses album recently, I said that I couldn't help missing the softer songs. They're all here, just as heartbreaking as ever. This is a record that gets your attention with a whisper and strokes your hair while it makes you cry. It is simple, winding, hypnotic and beautiful, and it makes being human bearable for a while -- without in any way detracting from its essential tragedy.