‘Widowspeak’ is a term with multitudinous reference points, one that sends down roots in all directions: the obvious pun referring back to the sensuality of language, the presence of death in that language itself (both particularly and inherently), the treachery and danger of the natural world, a solitude that is defined as feminine with its own characteristic pains and sensualities. On that final note, cf. the most prominent earlier usage of the term in the world of popular music, Lydia Lunch’s recording and publishing company (and the compilation of the same name). In comparison to the in-your-face (and all-over-your-face) sexual nihilism of a Lunch, however, Widowspeak’s is a subtle though not a difficult album, one that reveals itself slowly, that may not arrest at first but holds not only affective but also sonic textures amenable to languid repetition — one that thus offers the pleasures of the pearl in the oyster, the seed in the pinecone. Molly Hamilton’s voice floats — or drifts — over the instrumentation, while there is a troubled yet languid sensuality present throughout.
So, as this description hints, the Mazzy Star comparisons have indeed been forthcoming and predictable. But though a convenient point of reference, they’re not entirely accurate: on the one hand, Widowspeak eschew the harsher and less populist moments of Mazzy Star; but on the other, they track closer to an indie pop sensibility, at times even echoing the quieter moments of the Sarah Records roster (particularly on the jangly “Fir Coat”) while also being, in some ways, more low-key. Although that may sound contradictory and perhaps impossible, the most well-known moments of Mazzy Star — “Fade Into You” being the obvious choice — for all their brilliance have a laid-back adaptability to becoming alternative wallpaper music, the ideal Bohemian café soundtrack (I think also of early Portishead), which isn’t so much the case for Widowspeak. A closer point of comparison might be Cowboy Junkies’ overlooked first album of alienated blues and Americana, Whites Off Earth Now!!, or the early work of The Geraldine Fibbers — though Widowspeak is more low-key in its harrowing qualities than either of those pieces. There are thus a number of quite diverse stylistic influences at work, but here they are all fused together into a whole that is both natural and low-key, far from genre fusions of the increasingly common “look mom, no hands” variety (the postmodern solution to the fact that everything’s been done before, as Al Bowlly proclaimed in 1935).
Further to this, a dark country sensibility can be heard on “In The Pines,” which, contrary to expectations, is an original, rather than a cover of the classic Appalachian folk song made famous by Lead Belly and again by Nirvana. (Indeed, keening acoustically throughout are touches of a classic 90s grunge sound). The sylvan theme continues on the above-mentioned “Fir Coat” (I’m a sucker for a pun). The album’s more sinister undertones can also be discerned in other titles: “Limbs” (note the disembodiment of the word), the isolation of “Harsh Realm,” or “Nightcrawlers,” with its double association of evil and earthiness.
Indeed, it’s not only an American Gothic that we find here, but more specifically a backWoods Gothic, one that is infused not so much with the obvious viscerality of a Deliverance, but with the horror of hard times borne gracefully, the sweet horror of resignation (that is, no deliverance), the lament: the tender new world banshee mourning lost love as well as lost life, the Lovecraftian Whippoorwill as interpersonal psychopomp. In considering the natural world (a more felicitous term here than ‘environment’) of the United States as a post-colonial landscape (and this is gestured to, subconsciously or otherwise, not only on the aforementioned “In The Pines,” but also on the opener, “Puritan”) — as a landscape haunted by suffering even when its literal history is rendered invisible — we might repurpose the title of a classic of postcolonial theory to ask: Can the Widow Speak?