With Kristin Hersh’s lugubrious “Strange Angels” (1998), she seemed to be moving far away from the churning, shimmering pop of her Throwing Muses days, toward a spare, eerie country gothic. That year, she also released a mail order-only collection of deathly sad acoustic Appalachian ballads, seemingly completing her transformation from writhing post-punk Ophelia into macabre folk singer.
Apparently, though, Hersh missed electricity. “Sky Motel,” Hersh’s best work since the Muses “The Real Ramona,” is also her most technically complex, aglow with feedback cascades, pulsing drum loops and sampled nature sounds that suggest a vast, empty night. Though she hasn’t sacrificed her jagged bi-polar fury and devastating melancholy to synthesized slickness, she’s polished the hysterical edges of her music. On albums like the Muses’ “University” and Hersh’s solo, acoustic “Hips and Makers,” she alternated between a wail and whimper, but she almost always sounded emotionally shattered — songs like “University’s” “Bright Yellow Gun” were pure catharsis, the kind of music easiest to relate to in the midst of your own nervous breakdowns.
“Sky Motel,” to quote Luscious Jackson, is a nervous breakthrough. Here, Hersh sometimes sounds like she’s barely restraining herself from letting go, lending tension and drama where once there was only release. Other times, her voice is wry and resigned, the knowing croon of someone who’s fallen apart so many times that she’s knows she can put herself together again.
“A Cleaner Light,” is a uniquely optimistic song, full of shiny, propulsive guitars and a slippery, funky Kim Deal-style bass. Sure, the verses are full of ennui and despair, like the line “Keep away from the freaks on the fringe/They only talk to you ’cause you give them a good excuse to cry.” But in the chorus, so upbeat and melodic it’s almost anthemic, Hersh seems convinced that everything is going to turn out fine, singing “But in a cleaner light it’s OK.” She seems newly wise here, full of comforting empathy. “A Cleaner Light” is reminiscent of other songs that seem to wrap their arms around you and pick you up off the floor, songs as diverse as Massive Attack’s soothing “Protection” and early ’70s soul band The Five Stairsteps bittersweetly triumphant “O-o-h Child,” with it’s promise that things are gonna get easier.
Hersh played all the guitars on the record and mixed them together afterwards. While on some songs the music is nearly as spare and twangy as it was on “Strange Angels,” more often it’s hazy and luminescent, thickened by subtle layers of loops and effects, as on the heartbreaking “Caffeine,” the dirge-like “Faith,” and the haunting, hypnotic “White Trash Moon.”
She has said that, unlike in the past, the songs of “Sky Motel” didn’t come on her in feverish moments of inspirations. She had to purposefully write them, work on them, shape them. The difference is evident in the music — instead of an explosive gush of naked nerves or a desiccated, raw whisper, “Sky Motel” is a dazzling, precisely crafted work of introspection, tightly coiled energy and unexpected hope.