erasing clouds

This Is Hardcore: Jarboe's Thirteen Masks and Anhedoniac

reviewed by dave heaton

"Am I what you see / is this what is me," Jarboe sang on the first song on her first solo album, Thirteen Masks (1992), and it seems that anyone listening to the album would find moments that question their conception of who Jarboe is. For while her solo albums do share a generally dark atmosphere with her former group Swans, they are also all over the place musically. At times she sounds like a haunted nightclub crooner, at times a prophet from some undefined weird religion, and at other times she's an erratic rock singer with a wild streak.

Thirteen Masks' second song is an offbeat funk-rap that offers stream-of-conscious commentary on the color red. The one after it a prayer devoted to hate and misery. Jarboe's music is filled with ideas about the evil that men do, about institutions that spread conformity, about loneliness, violence and the hurt people cause each other. Thirteen Masks is an especially diverse album, musically - nearly every song is quite different from the one before one - but also in terms of lyrical content. If Jarboe the lyric-writer sometimes comes across as a poet who takes the world and herself really seriously, she also has a perspective on the world that's more complicated than your average rock or pop singer, and that proves to be rewarding when you give the music your complete attention.

Atavistic has resissued four Jarboe albums, each with bonus tracks; an interesting companion to 1992's Thirteen Masks is 1998's Anhedoniac. The title refers to someone who is unable to feel pleasure, and the album is a bitter treatise on love as torture, lovers as killers (of themselves and each other). Jarboe's voice shakes, quivers, screams, whispers, wails and cries within an extraordinarily immersive mood of fear and hurt. "I want to fuck your soul," two strange voices speak inside of a future metal machine on "The Cage," and that statement pretty much sums up the atmosphere of the music - there's sex but it's permanently entwined with pain, not to mention existential crisis.

"Beautiful my lonely sinner," Jarboe sings on the at-first tender ballad "Sinner," though of course the song turns into a metallic crunch and ends with murder. Tenderness on Anhedoniac is always paired with sadness and loneliness, and always gives way to death or madness. Expressions of love are always paired with brutality. "Forever" weds the thought "I will believe in you forever" to disease, spiders inside ears, and bodies rotting. There's gore throughout Anhedoniac, but it's less a shock technique than a way of expressing harsh feelings about the world and humankind. There's power struggles, within and without, throughout the album, plus the recurring idea that we're all killers, all sinners, all capable of the worst things.

Thirteen Masks showcases how many different directions Jarboe can take her songs; Anhedoniac is an example of how extreme her music can get when she focuses all of her energy in one direction. Both are riveting from start to finish, especiallyAnhedoniac. It's all-inclusive vision of darkness, and Jarboe's driven, menacing personality throughout make for truly scary, cataclysmic music.


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