Blonde Redhead’s evolution from Sonic Youth/no-wave imitators to lush, cinematic benefactors of grandeur has been rewarding. Starting with 2000’s Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons and continuing on 2004’s Misery Is a Butterfly, Blonde Redhead has perhaps been our most accurate purveyor of mystic meditation. Both of those albums stand up because they’re expressed as a consummation of personal and musical growth. And now 23 is the most exquisite exponent of the band’s entire career.
It seems fitting that at this point in their career — twelve years and seven albums — the members of Blonde Redhead would undertake the biggest challenge of all: In deciding to self-produce 23 almost in its entirety (Paul McCartney/American Music Club producer Mitchell Froom helped on two tracks), they decided to confront themselves. Discovering self-truth is not an easy thing; the band members say the recording of 23 was intense, nerve-wracking and puzzling. But it obviously forced them to reflect; this is a statement about where and how far Blonde Redhead has come.
Musically, 23 isn’t so much a departure from Misery Is a Butterfly but a refinement. The layers are richer and more weighty and expressive — cooed vocals, horns and sometimes massive amounts of feedback and drone color every bit of space. The album’s opener and title track is a head-spinning yet lulling swirl of dreamy, ethereal guitar, feedback and multi-tracked harmony vocals, resulting in masterfully controlled elegant chaos. It’s the most successful experiment in the band’s catalogue at both pushing and blurring the lines of beauty and pandemonium.
Elsewhere, “Heroine,” a spotlight of Kazu Makino’s allure and charm, finds her stretching her vocals to the limit, at times sounding soft and damaged then shrieking on the boundaries of harmony, fully exposing her emotional range as both a singer and deeply sympathetic human being. Co-vocalist Amedeo Pace also rises to the challenge, at times anxious (“Looking down a cliff/ it isn’t fun it’s communicating fear”), confrontational (“You say it like a cat/ say it to my face/ and say what you know everyone says”) and thoughtful (“Tell me what you’ve seen, my life/ I look in your eyes I can only see my own reflection”).
Too often, we chastise a band for not taking risks. But isn’t it a triumph when a band reflects upon itself and then delivers its roundest, most complete and multiply rewarding statement of its career? This album may be the first actual representation of Blonde Redhead on record. Where the band goes from this point only the members know, but 23 is one of the more enjoyable musical experiences I have encountered this year.