Perfect Pop Songs #5: Tanya Donelly’s “The Storm” (2002)
Like so many other projects, this series has languished—with regular entries’ having had to take a back seat to many other things. Still, I haven’t forgotten it, and the list of candidates keeps growing wonderfully longer.
This entry’s not from that list, however. Instead, it’s one of those items whose sounds and words return periodically, unbidden, to my aural consciousness. In some ways, such returns might furnish my main criterion for selecting songs and designating them as perfect. When they come back, those songs assert themselves so strongly or subtly that I feel compelled to listen again and to listen intently, to try to account for their power and lingering resonance.
Explaining “The Storm” with such a charge is deceptively simple. Part of what makes it work is the playfulness of its sounds, form and language. Anyone possessing more than a passing familiarity with the work of Tanya Donelly—in Throwing Muses, The Breeders and Belly—would expect her songs to twist and turn, to play games with expectation and elude easy interpretation. With the latter band especially, songs like “Full Moon, Empty Heart” and “Dusted” (from Star) and “Red” and “Silverfish” (from King) reveal Donelly’s particular skill (and that of her collaborators) for clever wordplay, timbral and structural surprises, and other niceties. Tempo and meter changes, odd sonic juxtapositions, and absurdist, fantastical imagery abound on those albums and in Donelly’s limited solo work.
The Sleepwalk EP (2002), a precursor to the album Beautysleep, was the first appearance of “The Storm” on record, and a first listen might find one continually trying to determine stylistically what kind of song “The Storm” is. For the sake of the argument, audition the first 42 seconds or so to think about where you might place it before continuing to read.
Although it’s not as deliberately scattered as one of John Zorn’s Naked City recordings (like “Snagglepuss”), the passage up to the middle of the pre-chorus takes a listener on a tour. The first second of the song has a jagged, overdriven guitar that seems to herald something much more metal than typical Donelly fare. It quickly gives way to a first verse whose quirkily delivered vocal line is complemented by sustained pitches on organ, chordal and arpeggiated flourishes on two guitars, and mostly supportive bass and drums. The pre-chorus that follows sounds like more characteristic mid- and late-90s Donelly and that decade’s alternative rock. Along the way, she manages to make lyrics like “I’m not shining tonight just radioactive / You have carbonated my bloodstream” sound almost plainly conversational—for someone feeling a bit dissatisfied with how things are going. The second verse follows, with the instrumentation more fleshed-out, and the second pre-chorus proceeds mostly in a similar fashion, only to have its final syllable, the word “hand,” be treated differently. In the first pre-chorus, Donelly sings the word almost matter-of-factly for a single beat to close the section (at around 0:52), rendering unremarkable the idea that her stumbling destination is the person to whom she’s singing. The second time around, at 1:47, she holds that syllable for a little more than two slow bars with a rise on the last beat. And, in some ways, it’s that lift that makes the song, for it not only prepares the highest register-singing in the sparsely atmospheric chorus (starting at 1:56), it also complicates what it means for the singer to “stumble.” When she asks in the chorus, that is, “Can it be / Can it be the storm has passed?” Does her stumbling into (his?) hands lead to the storm ending? Or is the stumbling wholly unrelated to the storm, whatever the storm is—an argument? a disagreement? a persistent sense of awkwardness/failure? a radioactive, carbonated feeling?
Whatever the case may be, the song moves rapidly toward its coda with a truncated third verse/pre-chorus hybrid at 2:37:
I’m not finished yet, I’m under construction
You can peek behind the curtain if you want
You watch, don’t stop
My reputation’s shot
I just wanted to get it right
Afterwards, when Donelly reaches the final, repeated iterations of the song’s central question (3:16), each one sounds more plaintive, more yearning, more vulnerable than earlier in the song. The last one, however, is a bit more emotionally dry, and dry in a way that leaves room for even more ambiguity. And perhaps it’s that deliberate lack of narrative clarity/closure that makes me keep going back to this song—and that makes it keep coming back to me…