Full disclosure: I know The Madeline Rust. This fact has not affected my review; had I found their new album to be appalling, I would probably have declined to run a review out of politeness to chums, but I wouldn’t lie about it – that helps no one. Neither would I overly hype a record simply because I know the people who made it. Boosting mates is all well and good, but not something that exactly helps your credibility as a writer.
That spot of up front defensiveness out of the way, onto the review proper.
Rock music is a funny old thing. One of the positives of the decline of the tradition music press has been a stripping away of power and an opening up of the one-narrow bands of increasingly ridiculous ‘flavour of the week’ sub-genres that theself-aggrandising NME in particular has always liked to invent and pigeon-hole acts into, ensuring that they have to either embrace it and hope for the best once fashions change or distance themselves from and thus look overly defensive. The power of a handful of smug, essentially talent-free music hacks with an eye on newspaper columns and book deals down the line has caused immeasurable damage to the music scene in the UK, drowning it in fashion, passing trends and petty tribal restrictions.
Recent years have seen a new sense of genre disintegration as the establishment music press loses its power. With weekly rags no longer able to tell you how to sound, to dress and to behave, bands have been able to develop their own identities and find audiences who are not preoccupied with what made up nonsense of a label they should adapt, but instead judge a performer on a purely musical level instead of worrying about scoring cool points.
This is relevant to The Madeline Rust because when you listen to Truth or Consequences, you won’t be able to comfortably place it into any narrow grouping, and it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be ‘the sound of now’. This is a band that wears its influences proudly, but those influences are so varied that they blur into something unique – not a weird hybrid or clashing cacophony, but music where the listener can find the atmospherics of wildly unrelated genres mixing together to create something of its own. The best description for this album would be that it is like a movie soundtrack, heavy on atmosphere and brooding darkness. This is the sound of sex and violence, desire and despair. It’s a David Lynch road trip. Rock ‘n’ roll noir. Moody Americana blended with early 90s grunge and fed into a blender with Natural Born Killers (or possibly Badlands) and spaghetti westerns, processed and reconstructed in Britain. It’s a record that has clear and obvious predecessors, but none of them are musical ones. Instead, the album transcends genre limitations to become its own unique experience, feeding off the likes of Henry – Portrait of a Serial Killer more than any musical influence.
Outside this LP, Truth or Consequences is one of those oddball American small towns where bad things happen in movies – and, in this case, in real life, as it was home to serial killer David Parker Ray. This story, and others found on road trips across the backwaters of rural America, make up this album, which has both the intimacy of a connection with the darker side of humanity and an outsider’s view of the strangely insular world of these places. This is, then, a concept album. But one that is far removed from the cliched ideas of the concept album, instead being an internalised descent into a heart of darkness via a series of murder ballads that rip with pain, horror, helplessness and desert heat. It’s less a single story than a series of snippets, newspaper cuttings of life and death in the American heartland.
You might expect this to be the product of Americans, not a British band, but in truth, it is the sort of thing that can only be done from a distance. That distance is not simply a national one, but an emotional one. That these tales of murder, pain and horror are sung by a woman, Lucy Morrow, gives them both an emotional intensity and a sense of one-step removed observation (as both killer and victim) that makes the sudden explosions of emotion fury on tracks like One More Time all the more potent. This track, with Martin Syvret’s brutal drumming and Aly McNab’s howling, twisting guitar solos giving it an epic, tortured feel, is the point where the album tips from mere excellence to being something genuinely extraordinary.
All through this album, you are reminded of things you can’t quite put your finger on. Everything I could think of to compare it to sounds nothing like it – that might seem nonsensical, but it’s everything to do with the atmospherics. There are moments here where I think of the emotional rawness of Kathleen Edwards’ Asking for Flowers album (and that record’s own murder ballad Alicia Ross in particular); other points remind me of the feel (but not the music) of In the Valley Below. There’s Lydia Lunch scattered here and there (I Hate What You Know is probably closest to Lydia, in her Shotgun Wedding era) but never to the point where things actually sound like her. There are driving heavy rock numbers like Outrun, while others like He Rode On have the addition of cello to give them an extra emotional kick and sense of tragedy. But in the end, it’s movie soundtracks I come back to. Movie soundtracks and true crime stories, the horrors of the satanic Seventies. This might be the first album I’ve ever heard that feels like I’m reading a book about murderers cruising the highways in search of hitchhikers. Music can do many things, but when it feels like a howl of helplessness from the point of view of two people brought together in a vortex of destruction, that’s something pretty extraordinary.
“There’s no way she’s getting out of here alive / and she knows it” sings Morrow on Serial Killer Song, and this Henry Lee Lucas vibe is what makes the album so astonishing, whether it is being as upfront as on this song or more subtle. When rock bands flirt with true crime and serial murder, it’s usually a ham-fisted attempt at shock tactics or misplaced celebration of thuggery by assholes. Few have managed to capture the true horror, the alienation, the helplessness of everyone involved – killer and killed, they are all victims, and this album has the authenticity of something that is not some cheap and nasty exploitation but the result of a genuine awareness and exploration of the demons that drove the likes of Ed Kemper to do what they did. It’s real because it is written from a place of knowledge and understanding.
I’ve seen The Madeline Rust perform a couple of times and they are a great live act, but in all honesty, nothing quite prepared me for this. Truth or Consequences is the most astonishingly brilliant, savagely emotive and disturbingly immersive album I’ve heard in a long time. It does what all music should do, taking you to a place you might never otherwise visit and revealing truths you might not care to think about. Just don’t get into a car with a strange man who is playing it…