By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
The new Sophie B. Hawkins LP, Timbre, has been in the can for a couple years, and a lot of the delay was because her record company Sony wanted "Lose Your Way" to be a single, but the song has a banjo, and mainstream radio won't play banjos, so Sony told her to redo it without banjo. Sophie refused. She'd written the song on banjo, she wanted the banjo. Eventually, she encouraged her fans to call, write, and e-mail Sony on behalf of the banjo. This worked. Sony gave in.
I'm sure there's more to the story than that, but I like it, and I like her for it. Her resistance is completely admirable. A radio prohibition against banjos? I wouldn't put up with that either. Even if it's realeven if the banjo sinks the song commerciallyone can't tolerate such stupidity, a world that won't let a banjo in. Anyway, I don't think that written into the rules of mainstream rock/pop is the commandment that everything has to be balanced and bland. Streams, even main streams, have eddies, pools, rocks, character. All sorts of flora and fauna come in by way of tributaries, and the odd ones don't necessarily have to get fished out.
Yet I wonder about the psychology behind her refusal. Sophie is part of a songwriting tradition of poetic overspill; it starts with Dylan but then mainly gets taken over by women, who make it misty and sexually femininea sea of feeling. But basically I think that Sophie's not a natural, not the free spirit or the force of nature that she'd like to be. She doesn't have the Teena Marie ability to swoop her voice and personality all over everywhere, or the Stevie Nicks ability to have her femininity soak through the music. Sophie's fundamental voice is a husky burrit's effective but not all that rich. When her voice goes into the higher register it can be quite beautiful, but only sometimes carries her personality with it. So she has to work for her voluptuousness, for female fecundity, for animal richness. She makes her music full-bodied. And so when a record company wants to take away a sound that she'd put into her song, it's not just an aesthetic or commercial disagreement, it's that they want to take away part of the blood and bone of her music. And so of course she's got to fight back, because the music is her body.
The promo packet quotes her saying, "The whole goal of this album was to make it resonate something really, really true that came from my body. There was no compromise. To me it was like playing the cello. When it's tuned so that it's ringingsinging against your sternumyou go for a tone that evokes the truth of your whole self. That's the timbre I'm talking about."
I have two contradictory responses. One, this is horseshit; the truth about yourself isn't in a feeling or a tone, it's what you do and why you do it. Understanding yourself involves probing and testing, comparing your memories and ideas to someone else's and asking yourself if why you think you did something was the real reason, and so on.
Response number two is that she's not so much uncovering truth as she is trying to be true to some things: to a sound, to a songwriting tradition, to a feeling in her sternum, to a bodily sense of life, to what she can do, to what music can be. In this sense true doesn't mean "accurate" so much as it means "being worthy."
I think she intends to do both: to dig inside, to reveal herself; and to create a full sound that's worthy of the musical impulse within her. She does much better at fullness than she does at self-revelation. This is becausesimplyshe has not thought through her ideas, thought through her lyrics. She has a talent for words: they're part of her abundance, an overload of images, a verbal too-muchness. Startling metaphors, mawkish clichés, feints at narrative, shock effects. But she's evasive: she retreats too often into vagueness and sentimentality and high-school girl twaddle, fake self-discovery.
She started in music as a drummer, and she has a good sense of how words sound, how they have beats and rhythm and tones. The first verse of "32 Lines": I want your hand across my belly I want your breasts upon my back I want your pain to rip right through me I am your death, you are my wrath
The words sound compelling: death wrath back, belly right through me, hand pain rip, I want I want I want. You think that there's an interesting drama being introduced, let's say a woman lover acting out Sophie's mute anger, Sophie in turn representing the woman's unacknowledged mortality. But if you're the listener you're going to have to provide such a drama for yourself, because Sophie doesn't. Instead, the song goes on, with more verses, more conclusions, a string of abstractions ("You are my fate, I'm your design," etc.), without answering the questions: Why wrath? Why death? What ripping pain? The words are hardly meaninglessthere's a potential vision here, sex as not just something whole and wholesome, but as a dangerous sharing, shattering as well as unifying. But she doesn't know how to put the vision down into words, doesn't, as it were, give it a body. This is a great song nonetheless, sexy, a slow intense rocker not unlike "Justify My Love" but that manages to vary from whispers to wails without losing its intensity.
"I long to be your handsome woman," Sophie sings, and two lines later, apparently apropos of nothing, "I long to free Medusa's stallion." Trying to make sense of this has given me days of pleasure. Perhaps "Medusa's stallion" is just a slang phrase the meaning of which I'm not privy to (a Web search comes up with this, attributed to Freud: "If Medusa's head takes the place of the representation of the female genitals, or rather if it isolates their horrifying effects from the pleasure-giving ones..."). Or maybe it's an odd and inexplicable reference to Pegasus, the winged horse who sprang from Medusa's blood after Perseus had lopped off her headbut I wasn't aware that Pegasus needed freeing. I think Sophie just wanted to throw Medusa in with stallion, to cross female deadliness with wild male sexshe wants to unleash both, maybe wants to be both. As my girlfriend said, just listening, not seeing Sophie's picture: "I'll bet she has flowing, wanton hair." Like the snake-haired Medusa.
Typically, the rest of the song doesn't have much to do with this image; you've got "I find your lips, they give me peace" (sappy), "I need to die in your embrace" (no thank you), all mixed in, sex and death and horses.
But then, as I've been saying, her sound is better than her sense. And the range of instruments and styles is important: she isn't just using synths and steel drums, jazz moods and rock guitar, for the sake of variety, she needs the extra colorswell, timbresto give the sound the depth she wants. Even the couple of songs I don't particularly like on herethe high-voiced, gentle, sentimental oneshave a solidity that prevents them from being utter piffle.
My favorite song on the LP is "Your Tongue Like the Sun in My Mouth," a slow build on a base of acoustic Celtic guitar plinks, with dense electric drones working their way into the background. It compares favorably with anything I've heard by the Fairport Convention. And when Sophie gets to the chorus/climax, she lets go in a pop diva way, which gives an emotional payoff I've never gotten from Richard Thompson or Sandy Denny. The guitars and strings do a wonderful romantic-agony riff into the fade-out. It's quite thrilling, honestly. The words are provocative, elusive, silly: the usual Sophie mixture. It's about sex, first woman-to-woman, then woman-to-man. "I was young in his eyes, I was sweet on his thighs, I was profound." "Your tongue like the sun in my mouth" is a risky image, it sits there glittering and potentially absurd, promising more about sun and heat and tongue than the song actually delivers. And later on the inscrutable simile, "He fit my body like a one-horse town," again, potentially meaningful but only if decipherable.
My friend Rob says, "Sophie B. lyrics (by which I mean vocalsshe only writes to give her voice something to make a mess about) are sexy...scary/creepy, but creepy in a light and sexy and decorous way."
But she doesn't simply write to give her voice something to make a mess about. She not only means her lyrics to be taken seriously, she puts them forward in such a way that you have to take them onespecially in "Darkest Childe," which is more like declamations and incantations than regular singing. The "e" in "childe" (which I find unbearably precious) invokes a time when life was darker and more demonic, when it held earthy mysteries: a time of emotion, shadow, romance. "You fly through the night into the dreams of ancient ruins and make them sing." If her creepiness lacks genuine menace, this isn't due to decorum but to laziness. She's too lazy to give evil, darkness, wildernessthe demon "e" in "childe"much in the way of vividness and specificity. In any event, frighteningly or not, she puts violence into her sensuality: "fucked the man immobile" is not a rape by legal definition, but she calls it a rape and makes it feel like one, as if the wild girl has the knife to the man's throat. It's not just moist sex in the warm female gulch, this time; now she's the handsome lover too, and the stallion and the aggressive Medusa terror face.