Was Mantaray meant to be autobiography or living text?
So it comes to this: after three decades of groundbreaking, transformative work with the Banshees and the Creatures, Siouxsie Sioux releases her solo album, Mantaray, in 2007. An investigation of the circumstances seems critical, as we know now that Mantaray marks the final (to present) entry in Sioux’s illustrious discography. Sioux needn’t have waited for an accretion of fame or notoriety to legitimize a solo record – she was a near-instant punk icon as far back as 1976, when she performed a 20-minute riff on “The Lord’s Prayer” at a London festival alongside Sid Vicious and future Banshee Steve Severin. A generation on with a lifetime of creative and transgressive expression trailing her, was Mantaray meant to be autobiography or living text?
At the time, Sioux gave somewhat of a sideways glance; the prospect of solo work bubbled up time and again, but, like the transition from Banshees to Creatures, her guiding principal was to shepherd the songs to their proper place. Curiously, Sioux claims her initial intention with the first Mantaray songs was to outsource them to a girl group. The label (unsurprisingly) preferred Sioux’s demos, and album highlight “Loveless” seems to have been the tipping point for Sioux to decide to step out on her own (“And then I wrote ‘Loveless’ and I wanted it,” she confessed). “Like a panther on the prowl/ Hear me purr, hear me growl/ I was fearless, fearless,” and yes, this is the Sioux archetype at its most potent. But the verse goes on, over the teetering of orchestral bass strokes and Sioux singing through a sandpaper filter: “I’m wearing those slinky boots/ I’m wearing that kooky mood/ Now they seem to fit less.” For a woman who has sliced through every shadow, it’s her admission of vulnerability that turns out to be the jump scare.
It’s true that 2007 was also the year that Sioux and Budgie divorced, and she was reportedly also at odds with Severin as Mantaray took shape. The pain is present – it always is in her work – but don’t call this a break-up album. This collection embraces the notions of transformation and regeneration, losing none of the intensity. The cover art telegraphs this: Sioux’s lily-white skin is dotted with a kaleidoscope of insects – even beetles can be beautiful.
Reinvention is not linear, of course, and the moods and instrumentation of the songs reflect fits of growth. “Sea of Tranquility” is the emotional cleansing that follows a fugue state; an ominous guitar line is chased out by the taps and beaded shuffles of a bossa nova beat. “There are more stars in the sky/ Than granules of sand” becomes her mantra as her ocean-size vocals swoon over a concert piano and arching strings. She (re)visits fishnet cabaret in “Here Comes That Day,” decrying insincerity with a wicked strut and exclamatory horn hits. “One Mile Below” is a smattering of thunderous toms, heavy guitar drops, some honest-to-goodness thigh slapping and a rallying cry of Sioux’s idiosyncratic whoops and yips – joyously chaotic and a little bit schizo, there’s nowhere to go but up.
The instrumentation on Mantaray is absolutely fearless, a credit to producers Steve Evans and Charlie Jones, who also contributed as musicians on the album. From marimbas to dulcimers to flugelhorns, they (along with Sioux) orchestrated a diversity of textures – a risk that could easily overpower a less dynamic vocalist. The group also switched up the recording process on this album, working on the songs piecemeal over a period of months, rather than in a marathon block session. This allowed some grace for review and contemplation, enabling Sioux to perfect her songs one universe at a time.
“I feel a force I’ve never felt before…/ I burst out, I’m transformed,” she sings on album single “Into a Swan.” The guitar riff sounds like it’s powered by a live wire buried under gravel, and Sioux delivers this announcement with commanding clarity. There are echoes of icons here; they gritty buzz of it feels like Rid of Me-era PJ Harvey, but if you were only half-listening to the line “Don’t be surprised/ This change is my design,” you’d swear it was Madonna singing it.
It could be that these impressions are stronger retrospectively, if Mantaray is to be mined for subliminal messages. “Into the Swan” feels like a curtain call, but maybe that’s only because the house lights went up. The album was a poised, adventurous solo debut that also happened to commemorate the poised, adventurous exit of the artist from the spotlight of a quickly evolving music industry. Whether or not it was engineered as a good-bye, the departure was close to perfect.