Thursday, March 08, 2018

Holly Miranda's Exquisite Mutual Horse

Mutual Horse - Holly Miranda How much of yourself do you reveal to others? If you’re an artist, for example, where does the persona that you present in your creations overlap with your innermost self, and how much do you keep hidden? And, does the level of craft you attain over time make it easier to unleash the full breadth of yourself in your music? Holly Miranda’s third album has me contemplating these deep thoughts - and in her case the answer to that last question seems to be an emphatic YES. On her last, self-titled, record (from 2015 and my number one album from that year) I was astonished at the leap her songwriting had taken. While she was always good, I felt she had finally created a set of songs fully equal to her interpretive gifts as a singer.

It’s not that I thought she would never make a better album, it just that I couldn’t imagine what that would sound like. Well, now I know: Mutual Horse represents a coming together of songwriting, arranging, production and, above all, singing, that puts Miranda at the pinnacle of both her art and the art form she operates within. Even my wife, who has always liked Holly without quite being a believer, starting saying things like “Dusty Springfield. Lucinda Williams. Holly Miranda” - and that was just during her first listen. 

Mutual Horse starts out modestly, with a simple melody played on bells over which Miranda sings “I was asleep/I don’t know how long I’d been out,” - giving that last word an edge, just a hint of what’s to come. After a full verse over the bells, she makes good on that promise, dropping the hammer with a huge descending chorus. Then, just as the last echo of Wherever You Are is still resonating, some disconnected sounds arise out of the void, soon exploding into the roadhouse stomp of Golden Spiral, a great showcase for longtime collaborator Maria Eisen’s baritone sax. It absolutely slew the crowd when Miranda opened with it at Union Pool last summer, and while the studio version adds a kaleidoscope of details and dub techniques it does so without sacrificing any of the song's elemental power. 

That one-two punch that opens the album is a good microcosm of the methods behind Mutual Horse, which finds Miranda and producer Florent Barbier crafting widely varied settings for each track, serving the songs with exquisite sensitivity to all their nuances. The results lead to sonic worlds unlike anything we’ve heard from Holly previously. Towers, for example, sounds like a transmission from a dead city radio, with Holly’s distorted vocal murmurs accompanied by Jonathan Ullman’s ticky-tack drumsticks and a drone from Eisen’s sax. Then there’s Mr. Fong's, a glammed-out fantasia that starts with some dark Duane Eddy guitar twang over which Holly sings a line both threatening and absurd: “Thinking of starting a war/Hiding receipts in the underwear drawer,” before sheepishly admitting she’s been “spending too much time at Mr. Fongs.” The chorus, when it eventually comes, is fantastic: a choir of voices (including Shara Nova, AKA My Brightest Diamond) singing “I dream in full color/ But your daylight moves me sideways,” in gloriously odd harmonies. If you follow Miranda’s Instagram, you know she has a wicked sense of humor - it’s wonderful to hear her letting some of that into her music. 

Having doses of surrealism like Mr. Fongs or Golden Spiral, with its donkey parked outside a 7-11, leavens the overall mood of the album, which has plenty of direct hits of emotion in songs like To Be Loved (“Only wanted to love and to be loved” - life goals), All Of The Way, Do You Recall, Let Her Go, which is at least partially informed by the death of her mother in 2018, just a month before the album came out, and others. There are also moments of pure love, like Exquisite, a tribute to her friendship with Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, which he co-wrote and to which he also lends his quavery tenor. The level of craft displayed by everyone involved keeps all the naked emotions from feeling like oversharing, which should be instructive for some less-skilled artists whose songs feel like Snapchat posts that should have remained private and then allowed to disappear. 

Miranda’s genius with the songs of others is also featured here in the rescue operation she performs on Neil Young’s When Your Lonely Heart Breaks, from his mostly forgotten 1987 album Life. Over a percussion arrangement that's a cross between a samba and a marching band, Miranda delivers Young’s lyrics like an incantation, as if singing them was an act of self-care, willing herself - and us - to survive devastation. The only equivalent I can think of is Gavin Friday’s resurrection of Dylan’s Death Is Not The End, which was buried on Down In The Groove. Making a version of a song that's already beloved is the easy way out; true artists like Friday and Miranda have a different radar when it comes to finding songs to sing.

Finally, a note about Miranda’s singing. It seems like nearly every other song on Mutual Horse has her finding new places in her voice, like the liquid falsetto of On The Radio, or the sheer power of the opening track. But she’s not learning while doing; all of these expressive tools are wielded with command and confidence, allowing the listener to access the feelings behind them without being overwhelmed. Themes of sleep and dreaming have always been present in her music so it might be overly glib to say Holly Miranda seems more fully awake on Mutual Horse than on previous albums. But until her next release, that's what I'm going with. As Lou Reed said in What's Good: "Life's like forever becoming," and Mutual Horse is a magnificent manifestation of Holly Miranda's becoming.

Join me at Park Church Co-Op on March 22nd to celebrate the release of this wonderful album and wish her well before she leaves on a month-long European tour.

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