Help Me Out A Li'l Bit Here:
Thurston Moore--vocals, guitar
Tim Foljahn--bass guitar
The Nineties. In what other decade would a solo release by a member of Sonic Youth earn the lead review in an issue of Rolling Stone? Without a cool human connect, I relied on the music mags (RS, Spin, Alternative Press) and the radio. This meant that in addition to enjoying the truly interesting new tunes I grimaced through some try-hard trash heap material. Four years after the initial shock, green eyes were still fervently seeking the new Nirvana. (Eyes and not ears? Quest doomed.) You know that hoary saying about not appreciating the good in life without also going through the bad in life? True. True true true.
1995 had some outstanding so-called "alt-rock" albums: Alien Lanes, Wowee Zowee, Electr-O-Pura, Anything Near Water. I could, either in person or on paper, make a convincing case for the year as an immaculate encapsulation of the musical zeitgeist, but I would have to ignore the very brutal truth that 1995 was also the year that more people gave an non-ironic fuck about Billy Corgan's music and opinions on music than at any other time in history.
So apparently some of the fine folks at DGC thought Psychic Hearts was going to be a hit or something? After SY's first three major-label recs all failed to crack half a million sales in the US? Well, it was a big smash in the "Used" section at a lot of stores....
Thurston did not make an ersatz Sonic Youth album, which may have seemed unwise at the time. In retrospect, it was a decision that resulted in what is still his finest piece of solo work.
"Queen Bee and Her Pals"--No musician can sell out and cash in when they take such great pains to soak their heatstroke poetics in distortion over an instrumental that puts me in mind of a jack-in-the-box that's about to hurl. The lyrics are meaningful on some alternate plane of existence where cheese grows on trees and books read people.
I sure paid that song a compliment with some odd currency, huh?
"Ono Soul"--The non-hit single is a white-boy snake charmer honoring not just the titular beleaguered, but all noisy female royalty worldwide.
The Sonic Youth Seal of Approval meant a great deal even before the band signed to DGC and started giving interviews to rags that could afford to print color photos. Mostly it was Thurston, 'cause that guy would not shut the hell up, but really all four SY'ers had zero qualms about sharing their favorite bands/authors/artists/filmmakers that fans and journos may not have heard of before, or heard of but weren't inspired to check out for themselves. (For every Redd Kross, Harry Crews, and Spike Jonze, however, you were sure to run across a Prolapse or a Cell. I never said their opinions were unimpeachable.)
Almost as great was when SY referenced names that you would not expect to hear passing through the lips of such cool NYC art-trash--the Carpenters would probably be the primo example here. Only someone unfamiliar with Yoko Ono's history in the avant-garde art world would really be surprised that hyper-aware archivist spirits would acknowledge her with the utmost regard, though. That's a lot of someone's though, let's not fool ourselves. She is still being blamed by millions of lunkheads the globe over for supposedly breaking up an already-volatile band of young male rock stars who were probably just one ill-timed fart in the studio away from breaking up anyhow.
Steve Shelley is the not-so-secret weapon throughout Psychic Hearts. On "Ono Soul," his deceptively watchful drumming meshes superbly with yet another classic Harpo-meets-Lucy vocal turns by T. The chorus, all gently-whispered code words and private messages thumped out furtively in the night's midsection, steals my breath, still.
"Psychic Hearts"--If you meet any girl or woman who is pretty much down to kill for Thurston Moore, it's because of this song.
Throughout the album, Thurston's vocals are sprayed with just enough distortion to keep them understandable. I never knew if his reason behind this was to cover up his shortcomings (dude, we've been hearing you warble on that mic for over twelve years, what's it matter?) or to give these otherwise quite poppy and accessible songs an extra edginess. It never bothered me, except for a bit with the title track. As raw and insightful as "Psychic Hearts" the song gets, the distortion acts as a mesh netting of sorts, blunting the emotional impact somewhat. Mind you, that is the only thing I can find "off" about the song.
There is nothing condescending in Thurston's message to a young girl with "a fucked-up life...in a stupid town." He doesn't claim to relate, nor does he offer a solution other than to never submit to her worst impulses. When speaking with the destitute of body, soul and pocket, one does well to skip the ornate jibber-jabber.
He does not ask her to consider how much worse her life could be, or how much worse things are for other people.
He does not implore her to reconcile with her family, because why should the onus be on her? Why should she be the "bigger person"? What, precisely, is her shame?
His "prayer" is one of hope and goodwill. His final words are a promise. Not a promise that her seemingly untenable situation will one day improve--how on earth could he guarantee that?--but that she will never be able to tell herself, "No one cares about me."
A girl does not have to identify with each line here to be impacted. The specifics aren't important when we're talking life and death. The girl here seems to have retreated into an escape hatch more scandalously-decorated than mine, for instance. Would she and I even be friends? Likely not. But I can tell you we wouldn't be enemies. She's not some "psycho" punk chick. "Pussy power" is a cover that she threw on hastily to prevent narrowed eyes from spying her blemishes. She is understandably dubious of the man speaking to her--is his concern borne of solicitousness or salaciousness? How can she trust a stranger when the very people supposed to show her love and keep her safe treat her like the result of a lost wager?
Thurston's use of the word "prayer" has always been very interesting to me, because he clearly is not approaching this from the POV of the god-boy who knows that all can be saved, so long as they are willing to give their lives over to a higher power. There is a theodicy--referred to by philosopher Dr. Stephen Maitzen as "heaven swamps everything"--that suggests Heaven is such a wonderful final destination, so teeming with forgiveness and absolution, so rich with rewards undreamed of during one's mortal life, that it surpasses any and all pain and suffering endured on Earth. The suffering is not required to receive the reward, but it will be received, and it will be rich indeed.
This raises some serious moral quandaries. If you told someone being abused, "Well I know this is a horrible situation you find yourself in, but after you pass on into Heaven, the blessings you receive from God will compensate you and then some," there is a possibility that the person may decide to "grin and bear it." No longer will they seek a way out, or wonder whatever they did wrong to deserve this horrific treatment at the hands of life, because things will work out in the end, quite literally! It also absolves the adherents to this theodicy of moral culpability.
Thurston doesn't take direct action to improve this girls situation, but not because he believes she will one day look back on these tumultuous times with a non-grudging appreciation. Nothing she has said or done justifies her treatment at the hands of others. He understands that his role in her life is an ephemeral one. Rather than advocate harsh action that could ruin her life for good, he suggests that she keep living, with intelligence and passion.
"Pretty Bad"--In my review of Nice Ass from earlier in the week, I remarked how my first foray into pearl-diving led me to a bold assumption about the appeal of sex. Well, right around the time Psychic Hearts was released, my little theory was proven correct. The first--and last--guy I crushed on in high school, too.
And now back to, When Stoners Flirt.
T-Bone Mo' steps into the shoes of a guy who lacks the aplomb necessary to be a good stalker. Always muttering or mumbling, as his eyes sink deeper back into his head. He's not a menace; he's a mouse.
"Patti Smith Math Scratch"--Electric Moore!
Every song on Psychic Hearts fawns at the feet of Patricia Lee. As it should be.
Thurston was, for a time, ineffable. Super-tall, hair flopped over his eyes, sunglasses on at all times. Then there were the things he did to and with the electric guitar. He could summons wails and wobbles, or he could bust out pig-tail twist and shout. Shimmy up, shake down, shivers all around. Quite the punky brew, sir T. Wait, what? 2:45? That's all?! Unfair dude, I'm not finished dancing yet!
"Blues From Beyond the Grave"--Easily written off as a gorgeous submergence, "Blues From Beyond the Grave" speaks a different language to me.
When one knows not how to swim, local pools can be every bit as frightening as the ocean. The color blue is closely entwined with "danger" in my mind, and when they mate, what else can come but death.
Many a nightmare has featured my helpless body in the middle of the vast blue. Frantically I come to realize that the rest of the world has disappeared, and I am helpless. I will flail as the waters remain calm. I will sink. I will panic. My vocal cords will seal up in a valiant effort to keep that vile fluid from entering my lungs. Unfortunately, no air will be allowed in either.
That is why "Blues From Beyond the Grave" contains no words.
"See-Through Playmate"--Lively and lighthearted, until near the end, when Cindy drops by. Mood switches just a bit, but things are still cool. Might be a cat-fight as the party winds down.
"Hang Out"--The lyrics felt good, so he did them.
Before them, though, we get a minute of decor-related drama at the site of the wedding reception, until at last the feng is shui'ed to everyone's satisfaction. The happy couple materialize not long after: the nastiest riff on the entire record and a drone that also baked the cake. Sure it's not multi-tiered, but it's tasty, and there's two plastic people stuck on the tip-top, so baby don't be such a drag.
"Feathers"--Aww, this sprightly declaration of ventricular devotion gives me the fuzzy-wuzzies. Die grosse liebe! "I've been told/Feathers are gold/But why should I care/When you're so near." Yeah, I...the music is really easy to get caught up in. Like northern cardinals flying around your head, chirping out their calls of contentment.
Lucy was able to get into Psychic Hearts somewhat, much more than she ever got with an SY release. Songs like "Feathers" appealed more to her sensibility--brief, hooky. And she found Thurston's inability to sing "properly" quite amusing. Oh how she would laugh and laugh, till her freckled face became as red as the hair on her head.
I found it funny that Thurston was still writing about romantic love in the coded language of the self-conscious poet, the bard who wants to make a reader feel without actually giving away too much of themselves in the process. That isn't really a complaint; his focus seems much stronger than it was on Jet Set, as none of these songs, thankfully, are plagued by the same indiscreet narm found in "In the Mind of the Bourgeoise Reader."
Lucy and I had no time for love, Charlie Brown. Why bother? Risk of disease, possibility of pregnancy, shaving your legs...no thanks.
"Tranquilizer"--Heavy? They're playing cat's cradle with a yo-yo made from osmium.
"Staring Statues"--T-man's Rumplestiltskin impression continues, and I almost wish I had a baby to hand over. The chorus makes me pump my fist up at all the spry flies. Sure "Staring Statues" was cobbled together with all the craftsmanship of a sno-cone made by an eight-year-old wearing an eye patch, and yet again he's decided that one verse should be all the verses, but that's awesome.
"Cindy (Rotten Tanx)"--Hot nights with cool people. The futility of deciphering Thurston's lyrics should just be accepted at this point. The reverb effect helps more than it hinders most songs here, as I've said, and "Cindy" is not one of the outliers.
What are "rotten tanx"? Dirty greasy grimy tank tops? That's not sexy. That's indicative of a poor self-image. Or an unwillingness to do the laundry on a regular basis. No, wait, "rotten tanx" is that ornery li'l groove the guys kiss and ride from 1:33 to 1:58, the one that crunches like a deep-fried peach pie.
Where is the song named in Steve's honor, damnit??
"Cherry's Blues"--Folk singer solo set in a meat locker. One man, one guitar, one stool, one blue bulb dangling from the ceiling. Not one person in the audience. Except the drummer.
"Female Cop"--A fatal auto accident occurred just the other day, you can stop by and check out where it was--skid marks the spot. There's a killer on the road who'd make Marty Plunkett quake in fear. The cop thought oil was leaking from the car until she got closer. Once the wind picked up, and the smell hit, she knew then.
Women doing traditionally male jobs, or enjoying traditionally male hobbies...nearly twenty years after this song, I don't think we're any better off in terms of acceptance. So what, I like to play video games. I've been playing them since I was six years old. I also owned Pound Puppies and a Darth Vader piggy bank. No one ever sat me down and explained to me that I wasn't supposed to be into the things boys liked. I liked what I liked, and that was that. After seven kids, I don't know if my mom could summon the strength for some good old-fashioned parental hectoring anyway.
"Elegy For All the Dead Rock Stars"--AKA "The Diamond Sea Before We Knew About The Diamond Sea," but lacking some key components that made Washing Machine's last song a lustrous gem. Namely, emotion. The instruments sound detached from one another, which in turn leaves me feeling detached from the sounds they make together.
Elegy, then, for all the dead guys and gals who did make haste to die. Sympathy for all the living guys and gals with frozen fudge between their ears, the ones who can't understand how people who seem so well-off, so fortunate, could not find meaningful, reliable comfort in their solvency.
The overall sanguine vibe of Psychic Hearts can pulse through the listener in different ways. In 1995, I would often lean into that pulsation, seeking comfort and counsel. Much can change in 19 years, though, and much has changed.