Of all the so-called “Christmas” records to come across my desk in the past month, only one has meant a rat’s ass to me—and it doesn’t even mention the word. Not that it’s a namby-pamby bearer of feel-good wishes for a polite, tolerant, and thoroughly denatured holiday season. Instead of “Christmas,” the songs on Kristin Hersh’s The Holy Single give you “fear,” “grace,” “grave,” “glory,” “Narcissus,” “Augustine,” “Satan,” and “Jesus”—a completely nonsecular record for a completely holy day.
Throwing Muses’ Kristin Hersh abandons her electric guitar and her band’s skewed time signatures as if they were remnants of a past life.
She starts with an act of redemption, buying back the soul of Alex Chilton’s “Jesus Christ” from the black fog of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers. Chilton’s words are sublime: Two of the first four lines are carol titles, woven seamlessly into a verse that sets Bethlehem beneath its star as plainly as any centuries-old hymn.
Hersh keeps all these, as well as the snow-faint jingle bells and thunder-rumbling tympani, but she dispenses with the demented tack-piano intro and Chilton’s smugly ironic cry at the break—“We’re gonna get born now!”—and replaces the wordless exit harmonies with two more repetitions of the triumphant, joyful chorus.
“Jesus Christ is born” is repeated 16 times—backed by tubular bells (which, miraculously, recall neither Mike Oldfield nor handbell choirs until you stop to identify them)—swelling to an anthem, without bloating to false afflatus. (The danger, as always, is that of becoming Bono, who has never been a convincing gospel singer because he reduces Christianity to mere theater—that’s him in the spotlight, losing his religion.) But Hersh’s “Jesus Christ” is simultaneously intimate and universal, recognizing the ego as an inevitable, worldly relic—and subsuming it entirely.
Hersh’s setting for “Amazing Grace” (I know, I groaned too when I heard the title, but stick with me) takes for its tune neither the traditional “Grace,” which has been sung into oblivion and ornamented until it’s as vulgar as a Nudie suit, nor the dainty “Spohr,” which is completely unsuited to lyricist John Newton’s fiery testimony (that’s exactly what he gives, in case you’ve forgotten or, more likely, just not noticed), but one of her own devising. It rocks solidly between few notes, propelled by a strum that fractures the steady 3/4 meter again into three; even triplets are implied, but bursts of notes stack up against the back of each beat, buoying a melody so strange and calm that the words are heard anew.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years/Bright, shining as the sun/We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise/Than when we first begun.” That’s a verse that will either chill you to your bones in its unearthliness or succor you to your soul with its vision of multitudinous eternity, but Hersh makes it audible. I know I’ve sung the song scores of times and heard it perhaps hundreds, but Hersh’s steady, Sara Carter-plain voice has shocked me with a song that I thought held only tiresome, increasingly misbegotten attempts at novelty.
“Sinkhole” is a scabrously funny rant that, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, is very serious, for all comic songs that are any good must be about matters of life and death. The very notion of the earth opening up beneath one’s feet and swallowing one up seems archaic, quite Old Testament, nevermind that in some places—the song is set in Winter Haven, Fla.—it happens on a regular basis. Or if sinkholes perform their work so gradually that persons usually escape unscathed, their progress is vast and inexorable enough to swallow one’s largest, and therefore most fixed, possessions—a circumstance to which, in the U.S. at least, death might be construed as preferable.
What seems even more retrograde, though, is the song’s attribution of disaster: “There’s no water on the land/And it’s all because of sin.” When’s the last time you heard “sin” in a pop song that wasn’t referring to mere back-door shenanigans, particularly outside the “Contemporary Christian” ghetto? I can’t recall, but I do know that the last time I caught a similar notion, it was coming from the Dixon Brothers, whose ’30s-era “Down With That Old Canoe” blamed the sinking of the Titanic on the hubris of shipwrights who claimed to have made her “unsinkable.”
Granted, the Dixons were using the ship as a metaphor for those souls who set out proud and solitary on life’s journey, but they meant it literally as well. Does Hersh? It’s hard to tell, but she’s dead straight about the Lord giving and taking away. When she sings that “The flowers of Narcissus/Are nailed to the underworld door,” she’s placed Luther and his 95
theses not just at the Wittenberg door, but at the gates of hell, and when she avers that “Satan stole the landscape,” how can one not think that God permitted it, not think of His lifting the mantle
of protection from wretched Job?
But the flipside of judgment is mercy, and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” is country’s beatitude for the grieving. Here, New Englander Hersh proves her Carter Family connection honest. Her cyclical, chiming guitar picking, which supports a melody that does not vary between chorus and verse, scores the lyric like a compass, drawing a perfect ring of reconciliation around its dark core of parting.
There’s an uncanny sense that the song is somehow Scandinavian at heart, not in style or tune, but in temperament. There is, first, its failed stoicism: “I followed close behind her/Tried to hold up and be brave/But I could not hide my sorrow/When they laid her in the grave.” And second, whenever I hear it, I think of Ordet, by Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer. When told of the persistence of the soul of his dead wife, Mikkel mourns her whole: “But I loved her body, too!” It’s a love so flawed, so human, and so strong that Inger is re-animated on the screen and Mikkel’s faith is restored.
Still, had Dreyer’s film been perfect, Mikkel’s conversion would not have been wrought via a latter-day deus ex machina. It would have been born of the stolid resignation of one who knows that the circle is unbroken only in the by-and-by (this is why Hersh changed the title from “Will” to “Can”), but who nevertheless lusts after the flesh like a rural Victorian waiting for a post-mortem photographer to exchange the corpse going bad in the parlor for a memoir of tin:“Lord, I told the undertaker/Undertaker, please drive slow/For the body you are taking/Lord, I hate to see her go.”
And that’s it. Just four songs—because Hersh doesn’t need any more. I’ve listened to all 12 blessed minutes more times than I can tell—and that’s only today. Merry Christmas.CP