Dear Tanya Donelly,
It must be difficult to always feel second best, to always fall just short of the successes of those around you. It wasn’t always this way, but it sure changed quickly. Back in 1985, Throwing Muses was the first ever American act to sign to 4AD, just ahead of stage sharers The Pixies. Although the Muses gained critical success, they never hit the heights that Black Francis & co. did. Plus, stepsister Kristin Hersh ended up being ever the critical darling. Then, forming a band with fellow second banana Kim Deal on the same label, a band that was supposed to be a springboard for both ladies, the Breeders ended up to be Deal’s deal, vaulting her to first banana status and leaving you behind. You had some minor success and a hit single with your band Belly and the song “Feed the Tree.” An ill-fated second album led to that band’s demise and there you were, alone again naturally.
I have to tell you, I absolutely loved your solo debut, Lovesongs for Underdogs. Your songs “Pretty Deep,” “Landspeed Song,” “Lantern,” and “Acrobat” were all clever and well-written songs that spoke from your true underdog heart to the losers in all of us. Now, after having a child and near forty, you have come back to us, with a new perspective on life and a new sound. Whiskey Tango Ghosts, your third album, at first sounded to me like your attempt to cash in on Wilco’s success. The album’s title does kinda sound like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. But upon further inspection, that connection only remained rather tenuously. While Wilco started out in the roots of alt-country, you are just now beginning to dabble in the genre.
Album opener, “Divine Sweet Divide”, a quiet piano ballad, is quite reminiscent of Norah Jones. Your voice is more childlike, sweeter, and despite the age difference, younger sounding. It has never sounded better, in fact. The song is definitely, like Norah’s, rooted in jazz. “Every Devil” brings the acoustic guitar into play, the most prominent instrument on the record. The song is touching, but at times, with an inappropriate guitar solo added, could have sounded like a monster ballad. Then at other times it sounds like one of my favorite songs ever, The Doves’ “Caught by the River.” It’s a fine line, but you traversed it nicely, kind of like an `acrobat.’
Now, after your experiences in various bands and solo projects, you have discovered that honest lyrics, lack of glossy production, and the strength of song and voice are what matters. When I was young and ballsy and true…to you. is an example of just such an honest lyric from your song, “Just in Case You Quit Me,” a very personal song about relationships which can also echo all of her former musical relationships in an offhand way. “My Life as a Ghost” is another meditation on feelings of coming just short, being invisible or incorporeal. If the song didn’t feature your overlapped track of your voice at an even higher, almost unbearable pitch, it would have been masterful.
Your new sound, a logical extension of your last two solo albums and your change in lifestyle thanks to a new member of your family, is a welcome invader of our ears. The combination of weeping country guitars, soft piano, and your tremendously pretty voice make for a powerfully emotional meditation on life. I wanted to take this time to say thanks for the new direction, for always keeping it interesting, and to reassure you that in my book, you’re never second best.
Norah Jones- Feels Like Home
The Cardigans- Long Gone Before Daylight
Lucinda Williams- World Without Tears