Kristin Hersh has always danced a distracted waltz across her own quixotic, fractured psyche, while simultaneously sounding like the sum total of the anxieties available to modern America. With Learn to Sing Like a Star, this everywoman solipsist may have recorded her strongest album to date.
Hersh's creative drive remains an existential fear of falling through the cracks in the mottled surfaces of 21st-century living. On this record, on which she plays every instrument except drums and violin, she summons up a music that replicates that intuited, queasy wariness: a sparse yet layered narcoleptic rock that ticks and twitches like a thought process striving to avoid caving in upon itself.
The album opens with a thunderbolt. "In Shock" finds Hersh emerging from beneath shifting, colossal rhythms to address lost souls, adrift in a loveless world: “Your empty arms/ Waiting for no one.” Famously bipolar, Hersh has always felt too much, or not enough: on the spectral "Nerve Endings," she despairs of “Idiotic optimists rubbing salt into my wrists” before wondering, “Could you ever really live in a house? Could you ever live in a body?”
Hersh's personal black dog is savaging her again on "Day Glo," a visceral chug of ambient garage rock that suggests Janis Joplin crooning the works of Sylvia Plath. Hersh's husky vocal has deepened, grown more disturbingly raw than the ethereal trill that lilted through early Throwing Muses — on Learn to Sing Like a Star, she frequently sounds like Cerys Matthews undergoing an uncharacteristic long, dark night of the soul.
The punningly-titled 15-second spooky-blues instrumental "Christian Hearse" shows Hersh has not lost her knack for black humour, but generally there is little cause for levity here. "Vertigo" again showcases her wondrous capacity for generating spindly yet haunting music that mirrors a collapsing inner narrative as she marvels at life's cruel transience: “Half a shell of former selves/ Bury me twice/ Isn't this a lousy drug?/ Isn't this a pretty fall?”
A devastating set closes with the brutal opiate strum of "Wild Vanilla" and the funereal foxtrot of "The Thin Man." After 15 years of sustained excellence, there is a danger of taking Kristin Hersh for granted, but the transfixing beauty at the heart of Learn to Sing Like a Star can cause you, even this late in the day, to catch your breath. It's tremendous.