It’s an unfortunate cliche that great art comes from pain. Though there’s ample evidence to support this claim—just look at, well, the entire history of country music for instance—there’s something exploitative about the idea of someone else’s suffering taking place for the sake of our entertainment. It’s when that pain can be transformed into something beautiful and hopeful, even transcendent, when the narrative feels most apt, like when a band such as Blonde Redhead can compress a deeply personal hurt into something as breathtaking as Misery is a Butterfly.
In 2002, singer Kazu Makino had her face trampled by a horse, which resulted in her requiring reconstructive surgery and having to take months of physical therapy to be able to sing again. Though the band doesn’t explicitly say so, there’s ample reason to believe that much of the material on Misery is directly influenced by her accident, chief among those reasons being the standout closing track “Equus,” a fiery post-punk track that finds Makino musing, “Sometimes I think I must just let you be a horse/All I want to be is a rider/To be a part of you.”
On the lush, mysterious opener “Elephant Woman,” Kazu sings, “Elephant girl, it was an accident/unfortunate“and “lay me down on the ground/softly, softly.” Though the content of the song reveals a new aspect of the band, it is Blonde Redhead’s sound that has undergone a drastic change. It comes as a shock to hear a band once famed for a kind of Sonic Youth-liked dissonance transform into a more graceful, melancholy outfit. Elsewhere, on the trip-hoppy “Melody,” Kazu sings of a girl who confesses to a murder. It’s one of the best tracks on the album, drenched in dark atmosphere and mysterious undertones.
Guitarist Amedeo Pace takes on half of the vocal duties on the album, providing a slightly more raw element, more akin to that of Blonde Redhead’s previous albums. Though “Messenger” blends in well alongside Kazu’s songs, “Maddening Cloud” and “Falling Man” have a sharper edge—they’re more manic songs that are built on simple, punchy arrangements, unlike many of the album’s more lavish moments.
Blonde Redhead’s transition from Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons to Misery feels similar to that Unwound made in 2001, when they followed up the dissonant Challenge For a Civilized Society with Leaves Turn Inside You. They’ve taken a sound that they’ve developed over nearly ten years and decided to create something different altogether. Though the seeds of this album might very well be a painful chapter in the band’s life, they’ve bloomed into something beautiful, something graceful, something magical.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.