I was drawn to Hayley Thompson-King’s Psychotic Melancholia by it’s lo-fi garage production, her cascading vocal warble when she wails, and her rocking country style. That rocking country revival sound turned out to just be the shimmer on the surface of an album so deep it gives credence to the idiom ‘Holy Shit.’
Thompson is an operatic singer (she has a masters in it from The New England Conservatory of Music) with a fresh outlook on the ‘wicked’ women in the bible, an obsession that goes back to her Sunday school days. The album opens mid double-stop rockabilly-riff, churning into a breakup song with musical and biblical references. “Roll on, holy roller / Well I hate to see you go, but I love to watch you walk away / though I ain’t no saint, you ain’t no martyr / We had a large hall, and a slow decay”. With that Thompson-King is off into a record that subtly fillets the patriarchal idea that women are somehow rebellious, and points out that some of the time, they’re just plain right.
“No Room For Jesus” is set at the end of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness alone, with Thompson-King singing from the point of view of his temptress. It takes cues from Tacoma garage rock kings The Sonics, and is built on electric guitar, plate reverb and perfectly mic’d drums, with plenty of reverb in the vocals. The song perverts the gospel, making sure to let us know that there “ain’t no room for the Holy Ghost, here between you and I”. It’s studied, and perfect when she points out that “they say it’s wrong dancing for the flesh, yet our minds are filled with sin / but when the rapture comes I’ll open up my heart to let the lord come in”.
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She occasionally takes a break from the gospel to make other points. “Dopesick” is yet another in an amazing list of drug anthems to come out this year, dealing with the corruption of the body and soul. Thompson-King uses the range of her voice from soft snarl to scream, and aggressive, escalating electric guitar to exorcise the demons of addictive substances, from dope to relationships. Motivated by Goya’s grotesque “Saturn Devouring His Son” on “Soul Kisser” she goes country soul to ask “Are we Saturn, or are we Jupiter? / Kill or be killed?”.
It’s not long before we’re back on that train, dealing with one of the bible’s most infamous character’s, “Lot’s Wife.”
editors note: Brief aside for a Sunday school lesson:
We all know the story. Leaving her home in Sodom, Lot’s wife turned back (to have one last look, or to return, we don’t know) and was turned to a pillar of salt for disobeying the lord. It’s an allegory we use, disturbingly, to teach children about the risks of living in the past, or maybe even disobeying orders. What’s most disturbing, though, is we don’t even know Lot’s wife’s name. It was probably Ado, or Edith, but we refer to her as the property of Lot, the supposed biblical hero who God sent angels to rescue from the promiscuous evil of Sodom and Gomorrah. Oddly, Abraham had just asked god to spare Sodom if any number of righteous people could be found there. The Lord promised that if as few as twenty righteous people existed in the whole of Sodom, Gomorrah, or the plains between, he’d spare them.
Next two angels make their way to Lot’s home looking for a place to crash. They must’ve been right fine lookin, because by the time Lot could invite them in the whole town was surrounding his place asking him to send them out for sex. What Lot did next is offer his own virgin daughters instead.
So, in a reactionary move, the lord decides raining down sulphur on the whole shit-a-ree is the way to go. Lot is told to march his family to high ground, but he’s lazy and begs God to let him go the next town over called Zoar, to chill out until the fire cools down. God’s like ‘Whatever,’ so Lot flees to Zoar, God drops an A-bomb on Sodom. No one asked his wife what she thought, though. She decides to take a look and –cazart!, she’s a pillar of salt.
Zoar turns out to be a shittier neighborhood than Sodom, so Lot finally heads to the mountains and moves his daughters into a goddamn cave. Turns out he’s also a drunk, and since his daughters are now terrified to go anywhere they stay. Lot gets old, and eventually his daughters fuck him so they can have babies (that’s a paternal rape fantasy if you’ve ever read one) because no one else will come near them.
Reverence for this story is probably (I’m just riffing here) the result of thousands of years of patriarchal systems designed to keep men in power. It’s about time we re-examine those and work on a little reform.
…annnnd we’re back.
Hayley Thompson-King isn’t having any of the bullshit from the 6th and 5th Century BCE authors. She gets straight to the point over a driving riff, “you call me wicked woman, ’cause you don’t know my name / well they took me from your rib, so you and me and we’s the same”. A tasteful, pealing solo, some classic snare drum fills, a shaker later, and we’re burning down Sodom. Lot’s wife gets the order that she ought not turn around. Hayley Thompson-King shreds her voice in effigy, howling with the best of them in protest. It occurs to me that this is not a song (or album) about women’s rebelliousness, that it’s a refutation of the patriarchy entirely. That the stories we’re told, the orders we’re given, the beliefs we carry, for centuries should be questioned. What better place to do that than on a crushingly loud, psychedelic, introspective rock ‘n’ roll record.
“Melancholia” slows the whole pace down into a psychedelic feedback loop of guitars, cymbal splashes, and and softly drummed toms, describing instability, uncertainty. It’s a perfect segue into the albums masterpiece “Teratoma”.
A teratoma, by definition, is a tumor of hair and nails, that sometimes occurs in the testes, or ovaries, or even in a fetus. With these grisly beginnings, Thompson-King starts out: “You were never born, no brains and arms and legs / you were a little fucked up, baby, but they kept you anyway / and I will never love, and I don’t know how to be / my songs will always be about you / I worship at your knee”. The song’s structure isn’t incredibly complex: 4/4 time drums, and thrumming electric strums, but the message is pure blotter acid, a fractal of the album as a whole, a roots record that uproots your cerebral cortex with it’s lyrics. Thompson-King is at first rebellious, as the song builds she becomes completely blasphemous of the reliquaries we worship: “False idol, I put you on my shelf / False idol, just hair and skin and nails”. It’s easy to admire the way she carries a note here, stretching out the word idol loud and clear before she screams sacrilegiously “I’ll cut you out / I’ll cut you out / I’ll cut you out, myself”.
Hang on for the ride, friends. The fervor is just kicking in. Is this a question of our rituals, our sanctimony? Further, given the name of the song, and the subject matter, is this a pro-choice country song? It’s cleverly placed piece of the puzzle that demands you go back and re-listen to the whole record, to understand the levels. While the band is bursting into a million colors of fiery red and midnight blue, and Thompson-King’s voice is at maximum altitude, consider that this may be about every single one of our values –that the kill-your-idols moment may be the freeing, terrifying, uncomfortable, and enlightening moment you need to feel free. The album is not about rebelling against existing organized systems, but a rethink of our attitudes.
For all our sakes, before ascending to holiness, and after shaking society’s foundations she backs down a bit into a more classic country theme, crooning “old flames, can’t hold a candle to you” on “Old Flames”. As a counterpoint (you get the hint, she makes a lot of those) Hayley Thompson-King ends this country-rock album with an Opera song. “Wehmut”, which she sings in German, accompanied only by woody upright bass, translated it goes “Sometimes I may be singing as if I were full of joy, But secretly the tears are flowing and then my heart feels free”.
This is a psych-wolf record in country-sheep’s fleece. An intelligently written, years in the making piece. A fractal puzzle that, when assembled, becomes a key. Take it up.