In the final moments of Kristin Hersh’s self-produced Learn to Sing Like a Star, the former Throwing Muses frontwoman draws the curtains with the lingering phrase: “Fireworks for you in the ozone snow.” Orange sparks exploding against a backdrop of snowfall is a beautiful image. But it also reminds listeners that Hersh is right at home between extremes. In the past four years, her musical output has veered from the elegiac acoustic soundscapes of her most recent solo release, 2004’s The Grotto, to the always-in-the-red volume and intensity of her new band, 50FootWave. Learn to Sing Like a Star walks a tightrope between the two. Every song on the album clearly began as an acoustic number, full of the sturdy chord progressions Hersh is known for. But although The Grotto reveled in its stark, understated arrangements (apart from the gorgeous additions of Howe Gelb’s treated piano and Andrew Bird’s violin), this album is lavishly produced with bells, electric guitars drenched in tremolo, and string accompaniment courtesy of Martin and Kimberlee McCarrick.
Hersh’s lyrics have earned a reputation as unflinching examinations of relational discord, but such a pat appraisal undoes the way in which they actually operate. She’s always been far too elliptical, obscure and downright flip to be interpreted as some kind of confessional slave to suffering. Instead, her words are associative, working toward an articulation of those feelings that aren’t so easily identified. For example, there’s as much longing as there is dread in “Peggy Lee,” as the speaker blankly stares at the sky in the hours “between midnight and sleep” or lies on the carpet, watching as “the sun played across my legs.” Similarly, “Nerve Endings,” one of the most delicate and hauntingly beautiful songs on the new album, culminates in the fragile refrain, “Nerve endings think they see pleasure coming/ I know better.” It’s a biting expression of defeat, disappointment and numbness that neither wallows in self-pity or mires itself in cloying detail. And as the McCarricks’ mournful strings wrap around Hersh’s voice, the music matches the lyric’s tone perfectly.
On most of the album, however, Hersh’s introspection is cloaked in some of the brightest music of her solo career. “Sugar Baby” and “Peggy Lee” are succinctly structured pop gems that breeze by on a crest of effortless melody. “Day Glo” may meditate on listlessness and betrayal, but the catharsis of its chorus slips through the cracks in all the stomp-box fury and swooping violin lines. And as she sings, “Isn’t this a lousy drug?/ Isn’t this a pretty fall?” in “Vertigo,” the circling vocal line somehow renders her sentiment touching, not poison-tipped.
If the album falters, it’s in the inclusion of three dead-end instrumental interludes, including the cleverly titled “Christian Hearse.” For longtime Muses fans, they’ll echo the kind of experimental detours that gave listeners a chance to catch their breath on The Real Ramona, Red Heaven and University. But here, they don’t contribute to an overall mood so much as stall out the album’s momentum. And a prevailing atmosphere is something that is sorely missed, considering how hermetically sealed some of Hersh’s previous work has sounded. So if abandoning the monochromatic tone of The Grotto gives Hersh a broader canvas to work with, it also leaves Learn to Sing Like a Star feeling more like a collection of songs than a unified whole. Still, the album is full of Hersh’s characteristically strong songwriting and the emotional uppercuts that make her best work so gutsy.