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Beautysleep
Artist: Tanya Donelly
Label: 4ad Records
Length: 11 tracks

In 1992, when the band Belly arrived with their debut album Star, I knew I was in love. Their sound was irresistibly melodic, playful, inventive, and fun. Glossy special effects and shameless hooks made it both a fireworks show and, eventually, a great singalong record. But Belly’s greatest strength was clearly the lead singer, Tanya Donelly, whose lyrics were more preoccupied with dreams and wordplay than even Michael Stipe of R.E.M. Wordplay was a higher priority than profundity, which was very refreshing in the angst-heavy, doom-saying days of early 90s rock. And Donelly’s voice, which could snarl dangerously or swoop up to ethereal heights, was the centerpiece. Imagine the feisty daughter of P.J.

Harvey and Dr. Seuss, and give her a voice that never grows up, and you’ve just about got it. Every song on Star was a keeper, from the foreboding howl of "Low Red Moon" to the adrenalin rush of "Full Moon, Empty Heart." Today, Star still sounds fresh, invigorating, and better than just about every pop-rock album released since. Like U2’s Achtung Baby or R.E.M.’s Out of Time, its colors have not faded. If you think I’m exaggerating, find it, put it in your car stereo on a sunny day, and go for a road trip with the volume cranked up. You’ll be hooked.

What happened after that? It was a colossal disappointment to watch a band capable of so many new sounds and possibilities start sinking into the alt-rock tide of unremarkable, grungey guitars. Belly’s second album was a downer, devoid of those dreamy pop sounds, overburdened with angst. It was as though they decided they wanted to join the melancholic metal sound coming out of Seattle. All the fun drained out. It was just another girl-grunge effort. Sure, Donelly’s lyrics still had bite, but her voice was stifled by muddy production. 

Nothing about Tanya’s first solo album grabbed me either. I had hoped that breaking free from Belly would give her room for whimsy again. But Lovesongs for Underdogs didn’t offer any of those unshakeable little miracles. I went back to playing Star

Lo, and behold, a decade after Star’s release, Tanya has tapped back into that mother lode of energy and ideas. Beautysleep offers the fireworks, whimsy, and wit that enchanted me back then, and introduces a singer whose vocals have become more powerful and more surprising. 

The lyrics are strong as well. Donelly’s a mom now, and motherhood has settled her caustic temper enough so that she can discover delight again. 

She’s learning that she doesn’t need a wall of guitars to back up her up. She can be still and tell her story. While the guitars come back with a vengeance later in the album, the songs are strong, and the sound doesn’t drive us away.

"In the beginning my love was fierce," she sings in "The Night You Saved My Life". Who saved her? And from what? She tells us she was "saved" on the night "my spirit guide left me behind." A mentor? A failed faith? Or perhaps she lost touch with the muse? Who knows. But it was clearly motherhood that helped her find her balance: "Now I sit with my babe at my breast … I was never this good at my best." 

Motherhood is also central in the film’s most radio-ready song, "Keeping You." In it, Tanya tells the baby her story: 

        You landed here from innerspace
         You landed with that screwed up look on your face 
         I wanted you from way back when….

Then Mama careens from this nursery-hushed melody to a rousing declaration of vicarious independence—my all-time favorite line about parenthood: 

         My return to wildlife by satellite 
          By beautiful moon-shining girl
          Whether by hard ground or splashdown
          We’re safely back in the world.

But all’s not sweet and homey. She still has plenty of challenging abstracts to hang on the walls. "Moonbeam Monkey" is one of those great Donelly puzzlers that may have come from a dream. A techno loop pulses under her chant and a deep background vocal from the late Mark Sandman, whose voice is a spooky contrast to Donelly’s thin sweet whisper. There’s a fairy-tale quality to the story they tell about a runaway kid: 

         No one saw him gimpy going round the bend
         And no one but me knows the stuff it takes to mend him
         I will get him back on the right track 
         I will bring your strange kid back.

What follows describes someone, a child it seems, who "saw something there, something in the ice/ sees it still when he closes his eyes/he’s not talking, just taking it alone…" and she vows, "I will bring his story home." Maybe motherhood has her looking out for a neighbor’s neglected, traumatized child. But these lyrics have even darker, stranger connotations. After all, she describes herself as "an angel dark, darker than loam."

Delicious lyrics. Call me crazy, but I love the fact that I can’t pin down what’s going on here. All sorts of possibilities suggest themselves, but clearly these are the meditations of someone who has walked hard roads before, and who wants to use that knowledge to help another broken soul.

"Darkside" and "So Much Song" make references to disastrous relationships or events that the singer survived. And "The Wave" sounds like a testament of new, trustworthy, and fulfilling love and affection. Perhaps that’s the tale in a nutshell—the old true story of how false loves enslave us but true love sets us free. 

And thus, out of that Donelly can sing "Another Moment," which sounds like a motivational song, in which she strikes out on her own against all odds to follow a dream: 

        Time to move your sorry bones up off the floor
         Time to rise above your situation…
         So what if you come undone on your way to the sun
         Your home-made kite melts down and out of sight
         You’ll find that your arms are fine and strong and move you
         along
         And not a moment too soon.

This toes the line of too much self-reliance. Believing you can succeed on your own strength is the first step toward another disaster. If true love has truly saved her life and given her the strength to try again, then she should sense that her success is not all of her own doing. But I don’t sense arrogance or ego here so much as the excitement of restored confidence. She’s singing again, the ideas are flowing, and she’s soaring again. It’s exciting, seeing her offering such vibrant stuff after such a long absence. The album doesn’t hint at any deeper spiritual revelations beyond the healing power of a good relationship, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. 

This record doesn’t match Star’s song-for-song triumph, it does demonstrate that Tanya has more gems for the audience that remembers the heights of the early 90s. And if college radio gives this a chance, she’ll win a whole new audience as well, I’m sure. Beautysleep sounds like the confession of a broken singer determined to find her voice and her place again. And she has. Welcome back, Tanya. The wait’s been worth it.

Jeffrey Overstreet 3/17/2002


 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists. He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

   
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