Blonde Redhead have long been maligned as self-consciously artsy, drawing facile comparisons to Sonic Youth and a host of No-Wave acts– references that owe as much to their bandname's tribute to a DNA song as to Blonde Redhead's often discordant noise-rock. That rhetoric, of course, should've been shelved after the release of Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons. I only felt I should mention it again because, apparently, many of their party-line detractors never got the memo. By Melody, much of Blonde Redhead's feedback-laced art-rock had given way to brittle pop and arm's-length romanticism, yet somehow they still caught flak for the sound they had already largely outgrown. Just saying, is all: What used to be true is now tired, and, with the release of Misery Is a Butterfly, such knee-jerk dismissals can finally be considered irrelevant.
On Melody, the band's artistic growing pains had already become evident, most notably in the wide-eyed, fairytale pining of "This Is Not", a vibrant synth-ballad that– like the first protuberance of wing from a cocoon– threatened to split the seams of their style-damaged rock wide open. That's not just flowery critic-speak, either– Kazu Makino and the Pace twins (Amadeo and Simone) split from Touch & Go Records and financed their latest recording themselves, because, according to Simone, they "didn't want to have any kind of limits with what wanted to do as far as expenses; with Touch & Go, sometimes things were a little tight."
The confidence that led them to strike out on their own– even before 4AD expressed interest in the album– is impressive. But more striking is how clearly that confidence has translated to their music. Freed from all constraints, Blonde Redhead are beautifully reborn on Misery Is a Butterfly. True, feelings of loss, insecurity, and outright alienation do factor heavily into the record's thematic vision (this butterfly isn't called "Misery" for nothing), but the band's sense of assuredness surrounds the album's themes of vulnerability.
Misery Is a Butterfly was recorded before being shopped to a label, but judging by the sound of the album, its eventual release on 4AD seems to have been an inevitability. From track one, the record is lacy and moody, perfectly suited to the one-time home of the Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. The word "lush" doesn't quite capture the fluttering whirls of strings, keyboards, and delicately plucked guitar that open "Elephant Woman"; I'd go so far as to label such enveloping richness of instrumentation "baroque," perhaps even "rococo."
For Blonde Redhead's latest incarnation, the softer production simply serves as polish for tarnished, tired guitar, drums and keyboards. Here, the bristling energy that once held would-be sympathizers at bay has been turned inward, resulting in an unprecedented illusion of warmth. "Anticipation", for example, ventures into completely foreign territory for the band; it's vulnerable, yet remains emotionally available, and is breathtaking even in comparison to the band's most typically pretty compositions. Never before have Makino's gentle whispers seemed so genuine or close at hand. The psychedelia-inflected title track and the fractured desolation of "Falling Man" also offer inviting hints of the underlying humanity Blonde Redhead had, until now, been so reluctant to display.
Of course, even now, that humanity may be little more than an apparition. Their tales of heartache and desperation have cast Makino and Amadeo Pace– the emotional heart of the band– as tragically misunderstood, tortured poets who pin misery on their sleeves, never conceding that anyone else could be capable of understanding their pain. And despite the more inviting nature of Misery's music and production, they remain insular and distant here, as well. Only on "Anticipation" are Makino's vocals as beckoning as their musical surroundings; elsewhere, Blonde Redhead remain as they've always been: beautiful and vacant.
But they excel at being just that. It bears repeating that Misery Is a Butterfly is a gorgeous achievement. Parrying the double-edged sword of pathos in music– the "emo" trap, if you will– Blonde Redhead have perfected their own unusual strain of perceived insincerity. They said it themselves, and it still rings true: "Fake can be just as good." Though this album's lustrous ornamentation is often placed at odds with its halting vocals, Blonde Redhead are wise enough to embrace their own imperfections. They once espoused the merits of loving another despite our faults, and it shouldn't be hard for fans to seize on that sage advice. Misery Is a Butterfly makes it easy.
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