Home Music Holy Hell Holy Hell! Sunny Border Blue Turns 20

Holy Hell! Sunny Border Blue Turns 20

Twenty years on from its release is as good a time as any to look back at Kristin Hersh’s fifth solo album. Now acclaimed both as one of the great singer-songwriters of her generation and also as a writer of perceptive memoirs, she was at that time still best known as the frontwoman of Throwing Muses, one of the most successful alternative bands of the pre-grunge era. At the time of its release, Sunny Border Blue was another generally well-received record in a series of solo albums that had begun with 1994’s Hips and Makers. But in retrospect, it marks a pivotal moment in Hersh’s solo career.

After Throwing Muses split – seemingly for good – in 1996, the singer-songwriter went on to make a series of albums that, unlike both Throwing Muses and Hips and Makers, showcased the less troubled side of her work. 1998’s Strange Angels – a lovely and accessible record – is the most obvious example, but even the collection of Appalachian murder ballads from the same year, Murder, Misery and then Goodnight, seemed, despite its morbid subject matter, to bypass the angst and complexity that made Throwing Muses albums such a spiky emotional rollercoaster. With Sunny Border Blue – a true solo record where the singer played pretty much everything – it seemed like the Kristin Hersh that had written albums as challenging but engagingly different as University and The Real Ramona was stepping back into the spotlight.

It’s tempting to see the album as both a recovery from and resignation to the breakup of what had been Hersh’s main musical outlet since her high school days, but in fact Throwing Muses would reconvene within a couple of years. Sunny Border Blue, open, caustic and intimate, would become a template for her solo career thereafter, leading to the best work she has recorded to date.

Kristin Hersh has thankfully never made straightforward, cathartic records, but she channels that same angry energy to create songs that are paradoxically both oblique and direct and retain their tension and power, rather than expel it in an uplifting way. From the first song, the superb “Your Dirty Answer”, Sunny Border Blue is a raw and emotional album, but its more complex and ultimately more satisfying than the kind of self-empowering “fuck you” anthem that it would, presumably, be more helpful to write. Instead, Hersh sings despairing lines like “It’s not my fault you don’t love me when I’m drunk” in her inimitable voice – so often described as “childlike” – which had started to take on some of the huskiness it would develop in her later work.

As with all of her best work though, Sunny Border Blue is seemingly direct while being tantalizingly obscure, like half-hearing an argument in the next room. She tells us enough to know something serious – often something bad – has happened, but rarely enough for the listener to pinpoint exactly what it was. But that is where the power of her work comes from; whatever the truth of the way she writes, it feels like, rather than processing experience and composing lyrics, the words come to us direct and unfiltered, with results that are sometimes almost funny, as in “37 Hours – “I don’t know when I am/ ’cause you insist on using fucked up military time” and sometimes heartbreakingly direct – “Listerine covers your tracks/ Doesn’t do shit for the facts” – but which have the unmistakeable ring of truth, and emotional truth.

And emotional truth is, in the end probably the most important kind of truth in songwriting. We don’t need to know what the actual circumstances of a song’s lyrics are to feel its impact, but we need to feel it, and that’s what happens with Sunny Border Blue. Again, like all of Hersh’s best work, the album gives the feeling of being in intimate contact with a deeply introspective person who is trying to make you understand their point of view while telling you as little as possible. Appropriately, the only song where Hersh doesn’t play every instrument herself is the lovely, but almost jarringly different cover of Cat Stevens’s bluesy “Trouble,” whose straightforwardly plaintive lyrics highlight just how effective Hersh’s own, more personal writing style had become.

As with the allusive/elusive lyrics, the sound of Sunny Border Blue continues to characterise Kristin Hersh’s solo work to this day; it’s almost sparse, focused closely on the voice and almost tangible guitar, with minimalist but effective drumming and abrupt changes in tempo or mood that always feel more instinctive than contrived, even the unexpected trumpet on “White Suckers.” It’s an album that often feels bitter and angry, but also tender, bruised and delicate; often all within the same song. Twenty years on, a few songs from Sunny Border Blue – notably “Your Dirty Answer” – still appear in Hersh’s setlists, but more importantly, it seems to have been a breakthrough in finding a way forward as a solo artist, leading ultimately to the finest work of her career to date with albums like 2016’s superlative Wyatt at the Coyote Palace.

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