Even today, about 10 years on, Jarboe’s solo debut, Thirteen Masks, is a work of stunningly realized vision. Freed from the ebon sonic cathedrals that the Swans constructed around themselves, Jarboe mastered seemingly every genre of music, with the end result being a record that was naggingly familiar but like nothing you’d ever heard before. In a perfect world it would be some sort of musical handbook. There were elements of torch song balladry, jazz, medieval music, folk, industrial, noise, goth, electro, deep south revival occultism and mysterious incantations. It was a universe unto itself, a dark mystery that was as beguiling as it was chilling, with Jarboe eclipsing her erstwhile-partner Michael Gira. Instead, Thirteen Masks never really got its due, so hopefully Atavistic’s deluxe reissue will go a long way toward redressing wrongs and will reaffirm her status as an avant-garde chanteuse of the highest order.
Thirteen Masks begins with softly ringing bells and chimes, and soft whispers of “Listen”; it’s like the calm before the storm of the “Foetus” Thirlwel- assisted industrial dance nightmare masterwork “Red.” Fuck, even now, I get chills every time I listen to it. It’s a perfect piece of id-fuck-dance throb. Long verses consisting of Jarboe free-associating anything that evokes the steaminess of red (magenta, Georgia clay, placenta) as her voice is twisted and distorted, sped up and slowed down by Thirlwell, along with throbbing waves of dancey drums, deep gutdown bass, dense layers of malfunctioning electronics, and distorted, flailing guitar on the choruses (“Dead or red,” repeated ad nauseum). This alone could make the album. A visceral punch in the face of catchy genius, twisted and fucked into something, ugly, violent and bleeding. And then the album changes gears again.
“A Man of Hate (Lord Misery)” and “A Never Deserting Shadow” both sound like a medieval court nightmare, the cadence and sounds belong to a much older, darker time. “Believers” is cold, industrial new wave over, which Jarboe layers a jarring, multi-tracked vocal. Sometimes you have to listen closely to hear how many times her voice appears in all manner of non-lyrical guises. “The Lonely Voyeur,” built around a spare web of backwards looping tape effects and spindles of acoustic guitar, just might be Thirteen Masks‘s most naked and lovely moment. Jarboe delivers her lyrics with a breathy, jazzy understatement, like an alien chanteuse. It wouldn’t sound out of place alongside This Mortal Coil. As if to follow the mood building from “Lonely Voyeur,” “Wooden Idols” is total 4 a.m. jazz cool. Smoky club atmosphere with Jarboe in a slinky red dress and long black gloves.
“On An Open Sea” is unabashedly poppy and gorgeous, with classic girl-group harmonizing (Jarboe with herself, natch) and more than a hint of Carole King. Ditto “A Man Of Hate” and “Oblivion Seekers,” which also echoes eccentric folk music. Oddly, these tracks sound fresher than ever in light of all the “new weird America” music that’s blazing all sorts of trails. She’s summoning forth Laura Nyro, Nick Drake and even Damon and Naomi here. “Shotgun Road (Redemption)” is one of the more melancholic and swooning pieces on the album, laid down between Billie Holiday and Tim Buckley and Dead Can Dance; minimal instrumentation builds around a single echoing piano line over which Jarboe does her best torch singing. Rain sound effects make the whole thing perfectly sad. This is one I’ve listened to at least 20 times. “I’ve Got A Gun” is like a more androcentric, radical Swans, with all the monolithic power and panzer repetition intact and as bruising ever.
“Cries (For Spider)” is every bit as heavenly and lovely as the similarly titled Swans number. Brittle strummed acoustic, and Jarboe lilting above it all like a crisp autumn wind on an overcast day, pregnant melancholy and just the slight exciting taste of possibility. “St. John” digs deep into the Southern mystique around which Jarboe was raised, echoing the most ecstatic moments of the Carter Family. Hellfire Old Testamentizin’ in the lyrics, primitize untutored guitar playin’ and harmonizin’, wildly possessed vocals, all guided by a fervor and faith that just ain’t seen in yer current pop tarts and tartlets. “Yo! Freedom,” built around a primitive death-disco drum machine, hosts a chorus of Jarboes yell and scream the word “Freedom” and call out for a new life in a new town. Powerful stuff, like a mirror crack’d version of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”. Final track “Surrender” is eight-minutes of creeping noise horror, string scratching and throat demonics that sounds like it belongs more on a Coil album, Jesus.
I would have loved her version of Dead Can Dance’s “The Hunter” to be on there as a bonus track, and that, ladies and gentleman, is the only fucking criticism I can offer to this late twentieth-century classic. Five fucking stars.