In her most famous piece, feminist thinker Hélène Cixous set out to demonstrate how the utterances of women had been silenced by a masculinist and logocentric paradigm, and to explore how women might be able to reclaim their own language outside of these strictures. Her strategy was to use allusion and deconstruction, rejecting formal academic style, to present both a diagnosis and an example of a remedy. Maria Minerva’s own deconstruction of phallogocentrism (not to mention her invocation of the goddess of poetry) proceeds by wrapping her vocals in sonic haze and affective tone, and performing them through ever-so-slightly-off-key monologues, lulling and baby-voiced, smacking of the comedown. Minerva’s aesthetic is distinctive, reaching back (a diagnosis) to the synthesized dance and disco sounds of the 80s, and problematizing them by smothering their delights beneath seven veils of lo-fi static (a remedy? But one taken all too often in the contemporary milieu).
This is a sound that Minerva developed on her previous offerings, and here she continues her trademark method of concealing spoken-sung narratives beneath an eerie sludge of synthesizers and crackle. The seductive blend of an electro coldness, little-girl vocals, and a mood of irreverence gives a classic 80s mood, combining kitschiness and catchiness with a detached romanticism — one that at times verges on an icy, brutal masochism redolent of a hauntologised Ke$ha or Rihanna (“Ruff Trade”). One wonders what Avital Ronell (another deconstructionist), who is sampled on the intro to “Spiral,” might make of such a piece, in light of her role as a researcher on trauma and violence at New York University. Is this deconstruction, is it a brutal look at the realities of human desire à la Hubert Selby, Jr. or Lydia Lunch, or is it self-exploitation?
Despite my mention of catchiness, unfortunately — and you may not believe this in light of the fact that the album includes an ABBA cover (“Honey Honey”) — none of the tracks leaps out the way “Disko Bliss,” still perhaps Minerva’s finest moment, did on the Noble Savage EP. Consequently, the album tends to slip past the ear, sacrificing personality for coherence. We should note, however, that Cabaret Cixous is Minerva’s third release of 2011, and perhaps therefore, in line with other prolific artists mining the de/reconstruction vein, we shouldn’t be surprised if as time progresses the muse is stretched a little more thinly on the Procrustean bed of contemporary mythology — our own domain of the secular heavens, at least in terms of stars.
This review began on the intellectual plane, and if we divide the current lo-fi revival (in both synth and guitar registers) into two — those coming from a DIY “can’t play my instruments or afford a recording studio” aesthetic, and those taking an intellectualized approach to the medium (John Maus and How To Dress Well, I’m looking at you) — Minerva, daughter of a music critic and with a degree in art history, falls clearly into the latter camp (the abovementioned Ronell sample, for example, concerns futurity and the tyranny of the university as enacted upon the body). Indeed, in many ways Minerva is doing for Italo/disco what HTDW’s Tom Krell is doing for synth-R&B: deconstructing it, making it ghostly, creating another rivulet in a stream that has been gathering force since the rise of hauntological trip-hop and the genres it spawned. And in speaking of the supernatural and of lost belief, we return (again) to our origins, to the cruel, misty realm of the mythological. Where Cixous’s most famous piece was The Laugh of the Medusa, we might envisage Minerva’s Cixousian cabaret as closer to the lullaby of the siren, the moment before the shipwreck: entrancing, but never without a hint of the sinister.