DU BLONDE - WELCOME BACK TO MILK (MUTE)
There is a bloodless ecosystem across the land, wherein the musician seeks to transcend the limits of expectation, ability, credibility and that end-of-level boss, public perception. Because we’re a fickle jury. Do we want to know the human behind the songs, or to anoint the myth of the artist? Bafflingly, once we’ve made our choice, we sit these people in a bell jar and declare ourselves satisfied. We demand nothing from our airless prize except a promise that they will remain the same. Should they attempt to escape our clutches, we will leave them at the mercy of those who prey on ambition overreached. It’s trophic dynamics, mate.
And so the spectre of artifice stalks Beth Jeans Houghton like an apex predator. From Hot Toast to the Hooves of Destiny, her dreams of dodecahedrons have often brought a response of oh, for fuck’s sake from the owner of these words. For someone who used to go to college barefoot and has always valued creativity over physical achievement, musical personas have always bothered me. Why does everything have to be conceptual? Are you that unsure of your creation’s ability to function independently that you feel the need to smother it in extraneous, distracting blankets?
However, underneath all that, there remained something interesting. Maybe Houghton’s shtick resulted from a surfeit of ideas and a desire to be considered separate from all that kooky, faux-folk bollocks that surfaced in the wake of so many Laura Marlings. There really isn’t anything wrong with that – after all, her previous genre contemporaries at the Cumberland Arms remain vaguely indistinguishable, despite many worthy nights spent drinking and singing on the way to happiness. Creating a way to gain the life you’ve always wanted is actually incredibly admirable. Making it happen is another level entirely.
Nevertheless, as Houghton’s media front grew more affected, so did my indifference. If you’ve ever watched How to Get Ahead in Advertising, you’re already halfway there. The songs were good enough, that had never been in doubt. The rest was tiresome as hell. Houghton seems to have decided something similar: tellingly, the closing track asks ‘isn’t it wild how we love to indulge in a sorry-ass show of illusion in order to save us from our social graves?’
So now we have Du Blonde.
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
But this new incarnation promised punk spontaneity, authenticity and a desire to start anew. There was anger in the press release and a sense that everything was up for grabs. The first single was called ‘Black Flag.’ Post-punk reinvention, that’s actually pretty great, as is the song itself. It’s the most fitting child to pluck from its family in order to showcase the direction – loose, broken but remarkably assured and standing proud.
What I get from this record, despite the anger always on the fringes, is joy. It’s not fun, necessarily, but there’s an expressive love of craft that permeates the entire thing and overwhelms any worry about how it’s perceived. Does the world need a song that melds the vitriol of Hole with Sparks’ ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us? Fuck no, but it’s to Houghton’s credit that it almost works on ‘Chips to Go.’
Neither does that alarming juxtaposition belong on a record where other reference points include Californication-era Red Hot Chili Peppers (‘Raw Honey’), Cat Power and Kate Bush (‘After the Show’). The best chorus on the album comprises one seething question among ringing surf-rock guitars: ‘what is it like to fuck your mistress with her (your) hands tied?’ Your opinion becomes secondary to just trying to make sense of everything being thrown at you. It overstretches in many places, and lyrics like ‘Jekyll’s in the kitchen sucking off Hyde’ may be intended as sarcastic asides on the self-aggrandising nature of ego, but fall flat when placed in a stream-of-consciousness outburst.
All of the cracks in this record are rendered minimal by the quality of the melodies, though, and within the slow songs in particular. I’ve restrained from calling them ballads, as they rise above that definition too far to even consider it. ‘Four in the Morning,’ ‘Isn’t it Wild’ and ‘Hunter’ are standards in waiting, utterly transcendent of time and space. They elevate the songs around them, melancholic but never defeated, weary but never vulnerable. I’m not going to suggest that this is where the real Houghton comes through, and an entire record in this vein would actually be pretty unwelcome, but the way they’re casually thrown in is another middle finger to those who wish to restrain her ambition into palatable boxes: Here, is this what you wanted? Now fuck off while I play a song that sounds like the Pixies.
So yeah, you still can’t pin down Beth Jeans Houghton. Du Blonde may be something else in a couple of years, superseded by a further step away from whatever passes for legitimacy then. But why is that really a problem? Because she’s alienating her fanbase? Because she needs to stick to a lane in order to carve out a career? Because she’s a woman? Listen to the songs on …Milk and then tell me that she can’t do whatever the hell she wants.