Carla Bozulichs Foray Into Pop
After five-plus bands, countless collaborations, and decades of relentless touring, Carla Bozulich has managed to remain both prolific and, perhaps intentionally, obscure. As a fringe experimentalist, she’s channeled everything from art punk (Ethyl Meatplow) and alt-country (the Geraldine Fibbers) to noise (Scarnella), classic Americana (Red Headed Stranger and I’m Gonna Stop Killing), and quasi-industrial goth (Evangelista)—all as a kind of sonic quasi-memoir, a working through of her self-described demons, which include but are not limited to childhood trauma, drug addiction, shyness, and rage.
The closest Bozulich has ever come to the mainstream is with the Geraldine Fibbers, which she formed in 1994, naming the band after an imaginary childhood friend. Signed to Virgin at a time when record labels were still flush with cash to throw at bands that might just be the next big thing, the band’s music was ultimately too bluesy, mournful, and inaccessible to achieve commercial success, and it was dropped after just two albums. The Fibbers’s most lasting musical legacy is the lush and gorgeous single “Lilybelle,” from their debut, a song about fractured hope and survival, addressed to a young girl who rocks in the dark, “not to records, but the voices in her head.”
After the Fibbers broke up, Bozulich went on to collaborate with the band’s guitarist Nels Cline on her next project, Scarnella, whose 1998 debut was far more experimental and improvisational; on her brooding 2003 song-by-song re-visioning of Willie Nelson’s iconic album Red Headed Stranger; and 2004’s fractured country album, I’m Gonna Stop Killing. Bozulich released her first album as Evangelista in 2006, eventually releasing three more albums under that name between 2008 and 2011 with an often-changing roster of musical guests.
Bozulich self-released Boy as a solo album in March of 2014, with Evangelista member John Eichenseer and percussionist Andrea Belfi as her main collaborators; Bozulich herself acted as producer. In the liner notes, she’s described Boy as a pop record, but it’s only pop in the sense that each song has a conventional structure—verse, chorus, and bridge—and each clocks in somewhere in the three to five minute range.
From the very first track, “Ain’t No Grave,” Bozulich makes it clear that the listener is in for a 42-minute trip through the backwoods of her darkest emotional terrain: “There ain’t no grave that can hold me down / My Cadillac is waiting round the corner baby / I got a place for you by my side.” The gravelly tone of her come-on here isn’t so much naked aggression as it is a kind of focused intensity, demand distilled to its essence as need. On the track “Gonna Stop Killing,” Bozulich reflects on her desire to murder people with shotguns, promising instead to “make better use of her hands.” The effect is less than sinister.
Somewhat more accessible than the other tracks, “Lazy Crossbones” uses midtempo drums and a woozy organ to build a swelling, hypnotic, and seductive groove. The closing track, “Number X,” is almost entirely instrumental—eerie blur and drone, with some unexpectedly beautiful guitar work coming in and out. Bozulich makes no vocal appearance until the final seconds: “Don’t blow me out / before I finish burning / I’ve settled into a life of learning / Wouldn’t it be fine if at checkout time I was doing / what I’m doing right now?” Then the song, and the album with it, end abruptly, inconclusively, as if to suggest the coming chasm is better rendered as a threat than a certainty.
Boy manages to be both densely textured and unsettlingly sparse, rife with evocative fits and starts. You’ll hear elements of Appalachian gospel, folk-blues, country, noise, and electronics, often discordantly arranged or intentionally misaligned. There are the usual Bozulichean lyrical references to blood, danger, sex, and death; one is never far from the other. Lines are blurred. Boundaries collapse. This is at heart a narrative about abjection. It’s the late-’80s Cindy Sherman, waking up alone in the park after a bad night out with David Lynch, disfigured beyond recognition, yet fearlessly refusing to cover her wounds.
Pick up any review of Bozulich’s work and the critic will almost invariably mention that she or he has just “discovered” this priceless gem of an avant-gardist. These critics will throw out clichés like “dark,” “brutal,” “raw,” “soul ripping,” “unforgiving,” and—worst of all—“intense,” to describe Bozulich’s work. They’ll praise her “distinctive” musical vision; yet inevitably compare her to other well-established provocateurs like Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, and Diamanda Galas.
There is some truth to these assessments, but by the end of Boy the snarls and howls have lost their bite and I’m left wondering how many paths Bozulich can blaze through the now-familiar darkness without landing at the same destination. I admire the craftsmanship behind this album, and I want to like it more, but I feel like I’ve already heard this story one too many times.
ContributorAllyson Polsky McCabe
ALLYSON POLSKY MCCABE teaches writing at Yale.