A Musical Journey with Nicklas part 14 – Jarboe – Anhedoniac – 1998/2004
If I’m being perfectly honest; what initially caught my attention about Swans and drove me to further explore their music was Jarboe’s input and singular voice. She has another one of those voices that makes your skin crawl and your blood curdle. So in 1991 when she released her first solo album Thirteen Masks I had it pre-ordered and the anticipation I felt on the bus on the way home after having picked it up at my local record dealer can in truth only be rivalled by the anticipation of Sonic Youth’s Goo. I was not disappointed. Thirteen Masks is a very good album. As was the follow up so-called “Swans related project” Sacrificial Cake but umm … I’m not entirely sure about the whole “Swans related” part actually.
Yes M. Gira wrote and played acoustic guitar on My Buried Child (which the couple also recorded for the Swans album The Great Annihilator). Other than that and Lary Seven – who was working quite closely with Swans from “Love of Life” through “The Great Annihilator” – acting as engineer and instrumentalist there’s not much else in it really, except…
At the time Jarboe and M. Gira were so tightly knit that there was barely any separating them from eachother or the band, on or off record and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Gira had been more closely involved in the process than suggested by the sources I’ve found and in some way Jarboe’s two first solo album as well as the 1992 collaboration with Lary Seven Beautiful People Ltd. are sort of like sister albums to the Swans albums being put out around the same time. As an example of how closely tied together the various projects the two carried out between them were: A collection of material by Skin – a Jarboe/Gira Swans related project around the time Swans released Children of God – was actually released as a Swans album which for all intent and purposes, when all was said and done it was.
Anhedoniac was her first solo album after the dissolution of Swans in 1997 and was largely recorded on the tail end of the Swans are Dead tour. Of course this is evident on the album. The first section of sinner was originally used for Red Velvet Wound on Swans last studio album before the dissolution in 1997, Soundtracks for the Blind. I don’t want to diminish the Red Velvet Wound version in any way because it is an absolutely brilliant song in its context as being pieced together from a working demo but the version on Anhedoniac is radically different in textures and dynamics from the Swans version. Here Jarboe completes the song and make it all her own.
It also becomes quite evidentwith Anhedoniac that the Swans are actually Dead, even though they rose again from the dead in 2010 without Jarboe. Anhedoniac is much more Jarboe than anything she ever did within the confines of the band. It’s scarier, creepier, more experimental than most of her work within the band as scary and creepy as that was in and of itself.. It’s almost like a declaration of independence on her part. Not only from M. Gira and Swans but from the music industry and its tendencies to stereotype, exploit and thusly diminish powerful artistic visions, something that Swans almost got caught up in – but managed to come out of with their heads held relatively high – C’mon now “The Burning World is not that bad – during their brief period on MCA.
This is without a doubt why the album was self released on a CD-r in 1998 in a limited handmade edition until it was reissued (on Jarboe’s terms) by Atavistic records in 2004 in a slightly but significantly different version with an a capella version of I’m a Killer added before the title track and the original version being replaced with two remixes at the end of the album.
Jarboe would continue to release her music/sound art project this way through most of her solo career to date giving her an artistic freedom very few artists experience. This resulted in a wide variety of records, from field recordings of her home The Mothercrow House in the summer, recordings of her five year old self near in and around her parental home in Mississippi, a freeform flow of thoughts, songs and stories recorded late at night on a handheld recorder to more traditionally structured albums such as Disburden Disciple. Trust me when I say: Being a Jarboe fan is no walk in the park, not even late at night with all sorts of creeps stalking the shadows just waiting to pounce on you, the way so her delicately fearsome music so often does. Like a sweet adrenochrome kick in the centre of your brain.
Now the version of this album I first managed to obtain was the 2004 release and this is significant because of the previously mentioned difference in the track listing. The a capella version of I’m a Killer is just a mind blowing exhibition of her vocal range and ability. and from there on the album flows on with Jarboe’s voice taking it’s place like an instrument within the music, above or below it, a part of and apart from it at the same time, expressing and erasing every the very shape of language, insanely whispering or whimpering or roaring like a predatory beast, from wordless crooning to restrained rage and violence, commanding the musical textures, commanding and at the same time adapting to the environment of Jarboe’s creepy, painful, psycho-sexual, nightmarish words. Wrest away their meaning blurring the boundaries between depth and dimension. And at the same time opening them up like a terrifying spiral of emotional detachment until it you are embraced by it like a warm velvety blanket, as if someone had wrapped you up in the starless night sky where you are safe from your emotions – or rather lack there of – and from the world outside.
Anhedoniac is in no way a happy album or even forgiving and perhaps you need to have a certain personal experience both of the indifference for everything caused by deep states of depression in one form or another that the title refers to and of the defiance it can sometimes present itself as. The track Honey is a good example of this, as is I’m a Killer.
At the heart of this album – as with most of Jarboe’s production – lies her life-long struggle to fine tune her limits of endurance, be they physical, emotional or spiritual. She has experimented with all sorts of methods of draining the body and mind of energy, through everything from kick boxing, weight lifting and extreme mountaineering to extensive studies in deep meditation, Buddhist teachings and role-playing, and even before finding her way into with the intention of rebuilding and reinventing the concept of identity and persona, much in the same way the postmodern author Kathy Acker did throughout her career.
Another important aspect of Jarboe’s artistic expression lies in her rather odd – not to say unique – background and the mythological mysteries she has surrounded it with. She was born in Mississippi sometime during the 1960s (I’m guessing based on her meeting M. Gira and joining swans in 1985, since she has managed to keep her birth data a secret) to parents that were both F.B.I agents. She grew up in New Orleans, surrounded by its cultural heritage of black as well as white magic, witchcraft, vodoun worshippers and other extreme religious practises such as snake charmers and before joining Swans participated in what she herself described as “unorthodox sex work”. Clues to what this might have entailed can be found in some of the stories and poems on for instance the intimate My Delicate Beast.
Put it all together and what you are left with is a fiercly independent artist who envelopes the very concept of modern, experimental music and performance art with her one of a kind vocal talent and stunning musical skill.
YOuTube has its limits and one of them is that it is at times quite incomplete. and because of that the playlist for Jarboe’s Anhedoniac is missing four tracks.
Missing from the playlist above are:
“Mississippi”, “Burnt” and “Anhedoniac Bottle” [between: Sacred Disciple Wannabe and Under Will]
“Honey” [between: Pansonic in Red Dirt and I’m a Killer (original)]
Sadly I have not been able to find the a capella version of I’m a Killer on you tube but those of you with access to Spotify can find the full 2004 version of the album. A word of caution though, Spotify has got the track list a bit backwards. Replace the title track with the a capella version of I’m a Killer and move it down one track and keep doing that until you reach the two bonus tracks which are remixes of I’m a Killer.
 The 2 cd live album documenting the Swans are Dead tour is a serious contender for best live album of all times and I highly recommend it.
Av: Nicklas Ekström, Landskrona