Tanya Donelly has been making music for more than twenty years. As a founding member of Throwing Muses and the Breeders as well as Belly’s frontwoman, she has offered a great deal of compelling and critically respected work. Since disbanding Belly in 1996, she has recorded as a solo artist, taking five years off between her solo debut, Lovesongs for Underdogs, and 2002’s Beautysleep. Her songwriting is always marked by fairytale-esque lyrical imagery and smart, dreamy guitar work. But the one consistent factor throughout Donelly’s career has been that each new project differs markedly from her previous one. And Whiskey Tango Ghosts, Donelly’s third solo release, manages to wear Donelly’s trademarks and still sound completely unlike anything she has previously released.
Donelly is joined here by Elizabeth Steen on piano and Wurlitzer; Rich Gilbert on pedal steel and Nashville guitar; husband Dean Fisher on guitar/bass/percussion; and former Throwing Muses bandmate Dave Narcizo on drums, but the album sounds quiet and minimal. It lacks the hook-heavy but over-polished pop songs found on Lovesongs for Underdogs and the satisfied strangeness of Beautysleep, instead exploring folk and country influences and eschewing the electric guitar. Donelly’s voice is, as always, devastatingly pretty without being precious, and it’s nice to hear it as the centerpiece of this album.
Whiskey Tango Ghosts songs are lovely, especially “Divine Sweet Divide” and “Golden Mean,” both which feature warm, rich piano lines, and the delicate “My Life as a Ghost.” “The Center” is the only song containing anything that resembles a hook, and the softness of Whiskey Tango Ghosts is almost overwhelming. I was left wishing for a couple of dark but infectious songs in the vein of Beautysleep or either of Belly’s albums.
But we already know Donelly can compose harder-edged and poppier songs — her songwriting contributions to Throwing Muses’s records showed us that long ago. She doesn’t have to prove that here. Coming from a less accomplished songwriter, Whiskey Tango Ghosts might seem too homogeneous; coming from Donelly, it’s an unexpected but successful experiment.