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Quiet storms
Tanya Donelly turns the volume down and the intensity up

Late last month, Tanya Donelly turned 38 and released her third solo album, Whiskey Tango Ghost (4AD). Despite the impressionistic title, itís her most straightforward work yet ó the sparest, the prettiest, and the most haunting. Several tracks pass before you encounter even a brush of drums, and on most of the disc, her star-scattered voice is accompanied by little more than piano and guitar. On many of the albums Donelly has recorded over the past 20 years, with Throwing Muses, the Breeders, and Belly and during her stop-and-start solo career, there has been as much drama and poetry in her vocal phrasing ó she sings with all the clean, crisp color of a New England autumn, her whispers are cozily sensual, her falsetto is immaculate ó as in her lyrics, which can beat around the bush. Her biggest hit, Bellyís "Feed the Tree," was the rare case when her gift for round-about euphemism ó in that case, for death ó paid off.

"You accuse me of fancy talk," she sings on "Whiskey Tango," "but Iím just trying to find my words." She has found her words, all right, and the songs make way for them. Since her daughter, Gracie, was born five years ago, Donelly, who plays the Paradise this Wednesday, has made albums patiently, sometimes painstakingly. At times, her melodies have been as evasive as her language ó listening to 2002ís Beautysleep (4AD), you can get the impression of flirtatiousness disrupted by overthinking, a forced breeziness that ends up gasping for air. (That album was delayed for a long stretch by Gracieís birth and by a nasty, lingering bout of post-partum depression that Donelly endured thereafter.) But on Whiskey Tango Ghost, she speaks freely, in lashing sentences, and in settings that suggest the simplicity of folk and the elegance and nuance of jazz. In the 1980s, 4AD was the epicenter of gothic post-punk, and though Donelly retains a cathedral-like majesty, she has lately cited Stephen Sondheim and Emmylou Harris as influences.

"Iíve always wanted to make an album thatís deathly quiet," she says over lunch in Chinatown. "These songs are very conversational, and I really wanted to make sure they came across that way, as embarrassing as that is." What makes the album even more intimate is the subject of its conversation: the disc is a not-too-thinly veiled and far-from-rosy portrait of Donellyís marriage to Dean Fisher, who helps arrange her songs and plays bass in her band. Its moods are by turns mournful, bitter, feisty, uncertain, and compromised. There is a happy ending ó Donelly and Fisher are, after all, still together, and a valedictory hidden track features Donelly and keyboardist/pianist Elizabeth Steen dueting on the round "Dona Nobis Pacem" ó but even the albumís surest songs are fraught with doubt. Its first words are "I have lost something along the way." Even when, near the end, Donelly sings, "You are the love of my life," the songís coda speaks of tempests: "Youíre the tsunami, I am the fisher in the bay/We come together in the most calamitous ways."

"Part of it is just sort of settling into each other, which I had never done, because Iíd never stuck it out this long," she laughs. "And neither has he. So weíre both getting through on the other end of that process." She sequenced the songs on the disc to reflect a loose progression, opening with "Divine Sweet Divide," a flickering piano monologue: "Should we be as one? Iím sorry. Iím sorry, baby. Thatís not how it works. Donít worry. You worry too much." "The song I chose to start it with is both sides of what the theme ultimately ends up being," she says. "Itís not purely negative, itís not purely positive. I think that when a couple commit to each other, however evolved or advanced you are, you still buy into what I call the oneness myth: that youíre going to be shoulder to shoulder, facing the same direction, and itís hard when that starts to dispel. So that song is about working toward actively dispelling that myth, getting it out of your house, because for me and for my mate, itís not been healthy."

But the relationship only gets more complicated from there ó as if in flashback, the rest of the album hints at old wounds, new recriminations. Donelly has a way of capturing the backstage of a marriage, the blue notes behind its façade of uninterrupted harmony. The journey she describes is not a forward march but a circuitous route over rocky terrain: a campaign of parleys, retreats, and surrenders, two embattled parties hammering out an emotional armistice. "We fight, we win, we fight, we lose, we fight/We get lost and call it a night," she sings on "The Promise." "Every Devil" could be the end, at dawn, of that all-night argument: "What it comes down to," she coos, is "who could ever take your place?" In the end, the songís exhausted finality is as practical as it is devotional. On "My Life As a Ghost," Donelly suggests sheís estranged even from her own happiness, nonetheless closing with the line, "I lay my shield at your feet and beg to stay." On the closing "Fallout," she sings, "Honey, I want you. I still want you. I always do. I always will," but she leaves unanswered a final question: "Is that enough?"

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Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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