Indigo Girls – Poseidon and the Bitter Bug (2009, Vanguard)
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To a 19-year-old roiling with existential crises, the Indigo Girls’ major label debut was the perfect soundtrack for indulgent hours of delicious angst and sweet inner torment. “Love’s Recovery,” “Kid Fears,” “History of Us”â€”I can’t hear any of them without recalling long, depressing walks around the small town I lived in at the time, thinking about how depressed I was and how long I’d been walking, and Jesus Christ this town is small. They were the musical rain puddles I could sit in seemingly forever, emerging after repeated plays, shivering and soggy-bottomed, but knowing I had heard in the poetry and harmony and playing a sound and sentiment that perfectly complimented my prematurely bleak outlook on life.
Not much later, I discovered vodka, which more or less took care of my existential crises, but I nevertheless kept up with the Indigo Girls for a number of years and albums, enjoying their triumphs (all of Rites of Passage and most of Swamp Ophelia) and shaking my head at their failures (“Touch Me Fall” the most notable). They fell off my radar, but have reappeared on it with a fine new album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug. Odd as it seems, 20 years after I discovered them, they have made an album that genuinely speaks to me, whose sentiments I understand without giving into the embarrassingly dour mindset that once plagued me.
Loathe though I am to admit this, as I approach 40, I find myself looking back on good times and unholy humiliations alike with a modicum of nostalgia, in spite of myself.Â Several of Amy Ray’s tracks take that look back to childhood and adolescence with equal parts wistfulness and regret. “Driver Education” (originally recorded on her solo album Prom) attaches a coming of age romances to a collection of sensory details:
I fell for guys who tried to commit suicide
With soft rock hair and blood shot eyes
He tastes like Marlboro cigarettes, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
A Pepsi in his hand, getting off the school bus
She progresses through lovers of the more recent past (“tattooed girls with a past they can’t remember”) circling back around to growing up:
I ran for miles through the suburbs of the seventies
Pollen dust and Pixie sticks, kissing in the deep end
Of swimming pools before I knew what’s in there
We come into this life waterlogged and tender
“Ghost of the Gang” picks up the thread from the other end of life, a present littered with lost friends and a reticence to reconnect after too many years separated and silent. Word of a friend’s nephew’s deathâ€”a “mid-day suicide after a losing streak”â€”brings the protagonist to the brink of that reconnection, but she can’t bring herself to do it:
And I never called her to say I’m sorry
And my friend it’s been years
But I’m thinking about you and all of the tears
And I’m sitting here in the dark afraid to make a stupid call
This isn’t The Big Chill, where bad news brings you together again in cloying and sentimental fashion; it’s something akin to reality, where bad news leads to regret over letting good friends slip away.
If Ray focuses on looking back, Emily Saliers is more content to look around. The gorgeous “Fleet of Hope” nestles within its shimmering acoustic setting a deceptively profound scene:
The fisherman comes up, puts his two poles in the sand
He stares out at the sea, just exactly like me
But I’ve got a book in my hand
We will have caught on to something by the end of the day
But mostly we think about the one that got away
It’s a simple image â€“ beach at sunup, two people ruminating. That final line, though, when delivered in Saliers’ buttery voice, is absolutely devastating, enabling the song to set sail with its central symbolic note, of water simultaneously representing impermanence and strength. Elsewhere, she conjures a chill autumn scene for “I’ll Change,” punctuating an acknowledgement of her failures with a pledge to get better: “One day I’ll change,” she sings, “You’ll be the first one that I call â€¦ I’ve been running long before I learned to crawl.”
Of course, Ray has no trouble wading into the bloody waters of relationships gone sideways. “Second Time Around” lifts its guitar signature from Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” and its weary bitterness from “If You See Her Say Hello.” Over the languid pace of the music, she instructs her lover to avoid compromise: “Don’t do it if it hurts inside / Cuz either way you’re screwed.” By song’s end, she’s up for anything that will make her feel better, imploring her beloved to join her to see Loretta Lynn sing, to “kick up our heels and join in.” There is life after disappointment, comfort to be felt, and fun to be had.
The music is typical of the duo’s modus operandiâ€”acoustic guitars spiked with electric flourishes and real, live percussion. A special edition of Poseidon contains a bonus acoustic disc, which is pleasant but inessential (as is the extra track on the disc, a rambling fireside tune called “Salty South”).
I might not feel these songs as deeply as I felt their work in 1989 (I’m a good 20 years past my last bout with teenage angst), but I recognize and appreciate their depth and tone, the beauty of their words and wisdom of their sentiments. It’s good to have these voices back in my head again.