Kristin Hersh – The Grotto

Kristin Hersh
The Grotto

Although Kristin Hersh’s decision to simultaneously release her new solo set alongside the newly minted Throwing Muses album provides a double helping for fans to devour with unrelenting fervour, it’s almost inevitable that one of the two records will slip off the critical scope. And frankly how can another Kristin Hersh solo album (her sixth in total) compete with the attention bestowed upon the first full-length Throwing Muses release since 1996? It can’t of course, but by now we should all know that the unsung can easily usurp the over-talked-about, by which metaphorical-routing means The Grotto is arguably a better-buy than the new eponymous Throwing Muses album and possibly the best Kristin Hersh solo album since 1994’s classic Hips & Makers.
In fact, of all the solo albums Kristin Hersh has delivered to her 4AD label bosses in recent years, The Grotto is the one that comes closest to the dark sensuous passages and harrowing heartache of Hips & Makers. It’s almost as if the last four albums never really happened, which isn’t such a bad thing if truth be told. As loveable as Strange Angels (1998), Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight (1998), Sky Motel (1999) and Sunny Border Blue (2001) have all been in the interim, Hersh has appeared to be losing some of her edge. Not that we should expect her to keep pouring over the same open wounds documented on Hips & Makers, but we can at least expect some more head-hooking melodies and heart-stopping studio performances before that distant day where she hangs up her six-strings for good. The Grotto delivers on all both fronts – and then some.
Hersh really gives these 10 songs space to breath, but without letting any drift by with flat musical delivery. In the latter respect, she’s helped immensely by her guest players – Giant Sand’s Howe Gelb (on glistening country-jazz piano) and Bowl of Fire’s Andrew Bird (on elegant neo-classical violin). The twosome’s semi-improvised adornments allow Hersh to concentrate on making her husky sweet tones do the maximum amount of damage to the heartstrings. Bird’s role is best highlighted on “Deep Wilson” and “Silver Sun,” where his immeasurably evocative violin lines return Hersh to the rustic-baroque territory she traversed briefly on 1994’s Strings EP. Gelb’s role is subtler but far from throwaway or frilly, using his plaintive piano fills (particularly on the chilling “Vanishing Twin” and “Vitamins V”) to underscore the indelible poignancy of Hersh’s desolate acoustic guitar figures.
Anyone thinking that Hersh has been softened-up by her domestically settled life will certainly be stunned at the disquiet that drapes these songs, many of which linger heavily on nocturnal doubts and perennial insecurities that Hersh still can’t shake from her psyche. From the tortured “Vanishing Twin” (“I hate clever sons of bitches / Who can’t leave a girl alone to rot in peace”) through to the fraught finale of “Ether” (“This gnawing emptiness seeps in like a cold mist”), Hersh’s words are full of discomforting dread. But unlike Hips & Makers before it, The Grotto seems nearer to understanding the eternal bleed of Hersh’s mental lacerations, as it looks forward to the more optimistic dawns, as suggested on “Snake Oil” (“Soak up the weather / Suck up the sun into your bones / Then move on”) and the seriously wonderful “Deep Wilson” (“Under the bullshit radar / I came to find you”).
Haunted yet hopeful, The Grotto is a serene and sensuous treasure, ripe for soothing the soul through those darker-than-dark twilight hours. Exquisite.