It’s striking to compare the differences between Tanya Donelly and her half sister, Kristin Hersh. While it’s fair to say the latter has led a troubled life, battling with bi-polar disorder and crafting some superb songs about depression and angst, Donelly meanwhile is happily ensconsed in marriage and motherhood.
Her last album, 2002’s Beautysleep, portrayed a contented woman in love and Whiskey Tango Ghosts proves that the honeymoon isn’t over just yet. This is her most stripped down album to date, but don’t go expecting the bleakness of Hersh’s songs – here you’ll find lyrics about “perfect days”, “the love of my life” and so on.
As with Beautysleep though, what would come across in other hands as a bit vomit inducing is judged perfectly by Donelly. For she can do light as well as Hersh can do darkness, and Whiskey Tango Ghosts is an album of quite startling beauty. Said to have been influenced by country singers such as Lucinda Williams, this is a different sound for Donelly, but she’s as suited to it as she was to the indie-pop of her old band Belly.
For the opening Divine Sweet Divide, she’s backed by only a piano with her calm and clear vocals to the forefront. It’s a gorgeous start to the album, the elegant backing making Donelly’s voice the best it’s ever sounded. The following track, Every Devil, is even better, a gently strummed acoustic guitar being added to the mix, and Donelly’s voice sounding as rich as chocolate.
As mentioned previously, the lyrics here read like a love letter to husband Dean Fisher (who plays many of the instruments on the album) but what stops it becoming too sugary sweet is the hints of vulnerability that Donelly sometimes lets slip. On the beautiful Just In Case You Quit Me, she mentions she “keeps my heart on hinges” in case anything goes wrong with her relationship, and there are hints of darkness and doubt on the standout near title track Whiskey Tango. However, she also displays a fine sense of humour on The Center (“you are the mountain, I’m the low flying bi-plane, we come together in the most calamitious way”).
Yet it’s the arrangements of the songs here that make this Donelly’s most successful solo album. While some decry it as a bit samey, the sparse backing really suits Donelly’s songs. On tracks such as My Life As A Ghost, there are even moments reminiscent of R.E.M.‘s Automatic For The People, but without that record’s precoccupation with death of course.
Whiskey Tango Ghosts is a record that will slowly get under your skin. On first listen, its fragile melodies may wash over you, but after a while they’ll grab you and reach straight into your heart. It may not return her to her former status of favourite indie pin up girl, but this is Donelly’s finest work yet.