Tinderbox is another jewel of musical invention for Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Tinderbox is another jewel of musical invention for Siouxsie and the Banshees. It has held up over time better than most albums and is rightly admired by a host of contemporary musicians.
Its release year, 1986, marked yet another period of transition for the band. They were recruiting guitarist John Valentine Carruthers, who had previously appeared on an EP. Though his overall tenure was brief—he would leave the next year, after recording an album of covers with the group—he nonetheless left his mark, and the impact is heard throughout Tinderbox.
The album starts off promisingly with “Candyman,” one of the “hits,” as it were, a catchy and arppegiated pop-goth track that sounds like Durutti Column on uppers. It features typically wicked lyrics, putting a nightmarish, distinctly British post-punk twist on the character, previously immortalized by Mississippi John Hurt, among others. “With a jaundiced wink” and “his cunning slink,” he almost seems like Siouxsie’s version of Pennywise, the clown from Stephen King’s It.
Songs like this show off Carruthers’ guitar playing, which takes a streamlined approach without being minimal, stepping up for the riff at the right moment before slipping back into the rhythm section and working, like them, in service of the song. Elsewhere, the contribution is a largely textural, Edge-like one, and in other songs he is reminiscent of Peter Buck, unassumingly carving out melodies that both support and enhance Siouxsie’s singing.
“The Sweetest Chill” takes the listener into Kate Bush territory, a deathly romantic song that finds the singer longing for the “icy breath” of some mysterious beloved, “a drowning so sublime.” Siouxsie’s gift for imagery is on full display here—it is hard to get “tears thaw my sleep” out of your head once you’ve heard it. Likewise with “This unrest crucifies my chest” from the next song, “This Unrest,” an intense, pace-shifting song propelled by Budgie’s characteristically versatile and expressive drumming.
Throughout the album, there is an apocalyptic vein that is perhaps best captured in “Cities in Dust,” an unexpectedly catchy song that shows off the band’s new synth, and “Cannons,” a Cure-inspired track that reads like a prose poem, a lucid dream or rather lucid nightmare of landscapes wracked by disaster and war. Again, Siouxsie’s imagery impresses itself in the listener’s mind, with the image of “the preying sky” crystallizing the song’s ominousness.
Of course, it is not only Siouxsie’s lyrics that make this album such a compelling listen but, as always, her voice, which by this point has already matured into a full, elegant and assured sound, capable of handling the Lauper-esque pop of the finale of “Party’s Fall” in addition to the more dramatic, virtuosic performances for which she is known, as on the final two songs.
Of these, “92°” feels a bit like the rehashing of an older Siouxsie sound, though it also shows off the range of Carruthers’ guitar playing, but the real prize is the last song, “Land’s End.” With a syncopated, jazz-goth sound and a shimmering, mostly clean tone, it provides the right, hallucinatory atmosphere for Siouxsie’s incantations—“Come take this hand at twilight’s door/ I’ll meet you there, we’ll share the moonlit floor.”
The song begins to accelerate toward the end, as Siouxsie repeats “Take a walk with me, down by the sea…” For listeners of the album Tinderbox is a journey well worth taking, as much now, over thirty years later, as it was then.