One of the spookiest verses in the whole pop arcanum belongs, as it should, to Robert Johnson: “I got stones in my passway and my road seems dark at night,” he cries, repeating the line before the killer twist: “I have pains in my heart, they have taken my appetite.” He’s not talking about satisfying the munchies but about losing the hunger for life, an experience that can make the agonies of desire seem like a merry-go-round by comparison. And it’s a testament to the depths of Mary Timony’s exquisitely dark heart that she can speak from the same bleak vista: “What will get me through this night,” the enigmatic indie-rock chanteuse asks in “The Owl’s Escape,” a spectral nursery dirge from her new The Golden Dove, ” ’til I begin to cling again?”
Timony clings to love and flees its clutches throughout the album, which weaves enchanting pagan ditties out of cello and euphonium, some cornball New Wave moves, and the serpentine economy of Timony’s keyboards and Renaissance-faire guitar. Lyrically, these romantic rants and laments refer to a real-world breakup, but Timony’s too oblique for autobiography (she’s wearing a mask on the cover). The album rings true because it integrates, better than ever, the two rather schizophrenic sides of the persona she’s explored since her mid-’90s early work in Helium. Timony launched that band snarling at boys, and her ferocity earned her the image of an insane man-hater. Then she started veiling her diary screeds with the images of dragons, devils, and rainbows that came to dominate ’97’s The Magic City, which remains the indisputable summit of the admittedly circumscribed genre of indie prog. Over neo-medieval instruments, restless time changes, and Timony’s elegantly plucked and tuneful guitar, The Magic City dodged all the traps (whimsy, nostalgia, artifice) and achieved, in an essentially contemporary voice, the authentic psychedelic melancholy of the best Incredible String Band. Timony followed this up with her spare and harrowing solo record Mountains, which saw her stomping around her secret garden like Sylvia Plath in Doc Martens.
The Golden Dove‘s surreal snapshots are as o’erwrought as ever—a snake in the sky, a telephone on fire—but Timony balances these fractured fairy tales with a frank and vulnerable engagement with her confusion, her weakness for “songs of death,” and her passive-aggressive impulses. “Get the hell out of here,” she sings in “Ant’s Dance,” over an elaborate and insistent guitar line. “Now please come back, I need you near.” These are words as straight from the heart as any Joni Mitchell plaint or Sleater-Kinney harangue, but Timony then shifts gears into her singular symbology: “I’ve been hypnotized by the peacock singing.” One of the album’s menagerie of animal spirits, the peacock is the boy, of course, with what another tune calls “his 50 eyes, so haunting.” By transforming her quotidian suffering into fantasy, Timony is not being a simple escapist. She’s enriching those feelings through the magical, even cosmic, language of metamorphosis. That’s why “14 Horses,” the album’s most singular cut, manages to mourn both her love and the world gone wrong. Over a Plains Indian heartbeat pulse lightly laced with strings and telephone tones, Timony chants, “I don’t know how it came undone/The planet of Kingdom Come.” As always, the woman does not flinch from the dark, her poise feline and self-reliant, her voice velvety and sure.