Review: Kristin Hersh, 'Wyatt At The Coyote Palace'
Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.
In the book that serves as a companion piece and reciprocal guide to her mazy, incandescent new collection of songs, the singer-songwriter, author and punk mystic Kristin Hersh shares the harrowing story of an accident that took place on a mountain road between two club shows. Her tour bus caught on fire; she had to pull one of her children from the flames. Deeply shaken, she told her bandmates and family that she'd cancel the rest of the tour. But no one would leave her. Soon help came pouring into the shabby woodside motel where they were stranded; fans sent letters, money, rescue remedies. They fixed the bus. Recalling that that incident of near-doom and recovery, Hersh quotes something her teenage son Wyatt likes to say: "When the unthinkable happens, we die: we cross a threshold and start a new life."
Hersh has spent a lifetime crossing brinks like that one. She started her first band, Throwing Muses, at 14; injuries sustained in a bicycle accident two years later turned her into an oracle, possessed by sounds she heard in her head, which she turned into some of the most ravishing and revelatory music of the indie-rock era. Later, Hersh found ways to channel her noise revelations into rock hooky enough to get her on MTV and intimate folk-influenced songs connecting her story to myths and the poetic tradition. Wyatt At The Coyote Palace reflects upon some of her life's most perception-altering junctures: youthful near-overdoses and other bad trips, floods and fires, rough air on an international flight, a knife fight with a drunk at age 12. Grief at the dissolution of a decades-long marriage surfaces in the pauses between anecdotes. So does wisdom she's gained from parenting her four sons, including Wyatt, who is on the autism spectrum; the album's title describes time he spent at an abandoned building near the Rhode Island studio where Hersh often records, which had been overtaken by those wild canines.
In both her lyrics and her prose, Hersh recalls her misadventures conversationally, with elegance and droll humor. She's made it through them, the way anyone who faces trouble must. "We don't like the s***, 'cuz we belong in it," she declares in the caterwauling waltz "Between Piety and Desire," a song that's about the New Orleans neighborhood where she lives half-time, but also about accepting life's disarray. Her songs don't just describe the way things unravel, both internally and circumstantially. They embody the unpredictable motion from grace to disaster and back that may happen in an instant, in the flick of a neural synapse — or that may creep up almost imperceptibly.
Hersh took four years to make Wyatt At The Coyote Palace, crowdfunding the project and recording all the instrumental tracks herself, assisted by engineer Steve Rizzo, when she had the chance. The sound is grounded in her skittering voice and acoustic 12-string guitar, but widens like a gyre to reveal electric guitar and bass, horns, cello and various ambient recordings she collected while on tour. Songs like "Wonderland" and "Hemingway's Tell" have the propulsive drive of Throwing Muses and Hersh's other rock band, 50FOOTWAVE. Others, like the desolate "Guadalupe," turn as unexpectedly as an interrupted thought spiral. "Shaky Blue Can" contemplates dissolution within a stately waltz, while "Secret Codes" shows Hersh at her starkest and most evocative, singing words of both comfort and confrontation to a slipping soul who might be her ex-husband, herself or any of us.
The music on Wyatt At The Coyote Palace doesn't always feel finished, but that's not a fault: It's a testament to Hersh's willingness to share her creative and emotional life with her listeners. Her songs have always been both confessional and formally challenging; they expose her, but also evade us, throwing down clues and scurrying into dark thickets before revealing anything more. This mature work shows Hersh to be more in control of the process that results in her singular and ever-reconstituting body of work. "Work is a moment," she writes in the book's conclusion. "Its forever is in the sharing." Wyatt At The Coyote Palace generously shares Hersh's unfolding moments in ways that linger in the mind — new chances pulled from ashy circumstance.
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