Sarah Dougher kicks off The Bluff, her spellbinding third album, with a beautiful nightmare. In it, she’s hostage to her feelings, an explosion waiting to happen: “33 bombs with 33 wicks/Strapped all over me.” In spite of the angelic background harmonies, this isn’t entirely what the Chords had in mind when they sang, “Life could be a dream,” in 1954’s mushroom-cloud reverie “Sh-Boom.” The affect of “First Dream” is nearer the rising tidal wave of Max Frost and the Troopers’ 1968 psych-out “The Shape of Things to Come,” crossed with the shimmering night-sweat dread of Elvis Costello’s 1977 “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes.” Dougher dreams out loud in the voice of her unconscious, a Prophecy Girl bearing proof of her worst fears in one hand and holding out the most implacable hopes in the other.
On The Bluff, Dougher plays the Oracle of Delphi as Annette Funicello, or vice versa—as if a bad dream were a wish that your heart makes, and passion dissolved every distance separating Seer and doe-eyed, beach-party Mouseketeer. Desire is her great equalizer and great leveler: It puts the highest and lowest on the same footing even as it parts the ground beneath their feet. Befitting an academic who moonlights as a rock ‘n’ roller, Dougher’s songs are finely wrought, with pop-classicist melodies even more eloquent than their extended metaphors. In “My Kingdom,” the pensive lilt of “I’m on the porch, the night’s a throne/I’m sittin’ on it all alone” is as sweet and grave as the night is dark. It builds up like held breath, until Dougher lets it tumble out with a weary “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” affirming her solitude and defying it.
All the same, the proper, literate, well-behaved front these songs put up is just a cover story, meant to conceal the trashiness that lurks in Dougher’s heart of hearts. She’s kept that side of her selves under wraps on her solo albums until now, saving it for Cadallaca, the girl-grope side project in which she plays wicked organ and sings rubbed-raw, abjectly horny numbers like “Your One Wish” and “O Chenilla.” Heard in the tawdry, riveting, thrillingly shameless live versions that surfaced online last year only to vanish into the Internet ether, Dougher sounded like the bastard child of Sappho and the Mysterians, her tongue possessed by the language of high school eros and lovesick folly.
That has carried over to The Bluff, sometimes between the lines, sometimes as blunt as a slap in the face (“You ask me in and then you treat me like an uninvited whore”), nowhere more obvious or more liberating than on “Must Believe.” Playing wiry rhythm guitar against Jon Nikki’s run-don’t-walk lead, her hard voice going head-to-head with the wild backup screams of Corin Tucker, Dougher strikes a folk-punk balance that could fend off the Beau Brummels on Nuggets as easily as it might take over the jukebox at the only lesbian bar in Salt Lake City, where its anomalous combination of refusal and denial would be right at home.
There’s an open-endedness in this music that gives it a staying power Dougher’s previous albums didn’t have, an expansive warmth prodded along by the incomparable Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss on several tracks. Even partially submerged in the airy mix of “Wide Eyed” or the cluttered one of “Keep Me,” Weiss gives the songs a physical intimacy, rolling her snares like a dancer’s hips. Pain comes with Dougher’s territory, but a hedonistic streak runs through her most forlorn laments. Her plain delight in rhyming “distances” with “difference is” or cooing a deadpan one-liner straight out of the Young Marble Giants joke book (“The system works, but not for you”) bleeds into the breathtaking despair of a couplet like “Now I look over the rooftops of the houses of my new town/Hundred years to build up and seconds to fall down.” In Dougher’s dreams, the rain of loss never stops, but in her double-edged pronouncements, she makes heartbreak sound like the best of all possible worlds.