During the feedback-filled angst-driven roar of 1990s rock, Belly stood out as an anomaly. While bands like Smashing Pumpkins were churning out epic anthems with guitars that sounded like mating seals, Belly dialed it back with dramatic musical arrangements and lyrics that felt culled from a stolen diary. Other albums from that era have become more famous and gained a grander mystique, but Belly’s major label debut, Star, is one of the most gorgeous and chilling albums ever created.
The 1990s were an important decade for women in rock and roll, one where they used their platforms to establish themselves as something beyond sex objects or unwilling players in the male audience’s Madonna/whore complex. Passivity had gone out the window. Courtney Love painted herself as a sexual demon, a walking hormone, daring listeners to come at her with everything they had so she could belittle them. Tori Amos straddled her piano bench and sang plaintively about her rape, her struggles with her oppressive upbringing, and how to navigate a world dominated by men without losing yourself.
Then, there was Tanya Donnelly.
Donnelly seemed like the scary girl at the party that no one could remember inviting. She wanted to talk to you about the rotting dog she had seen lying in the road. She had made a sketch of it. Wanna see?
If itches could talk, they would be Belly lyrics. On Star, it wasn’t about sex for Donnelly. Her words delved into the unsettling world of imagination and poetry, verbal blows to the back of one knee.
Star is filled with songs that are coffee and absinthe, pretty dresses and ash-covered shoes, the constant beckoning to come closer, ever closer, into the darkness of an unfamiliar corner.
“Baby’s playing dead in the cellar,” Donnelly sings on “Dusted,” her voice a mixture of nonchalance and indifference. “Gave her water, just got paler.” It’s a shocking, even hideous, image made more frightening by Donnelly’s sweet, child-like vocals.
Donnelly describes a childhood friend in the song “Gepetto” as “that kid from the bad home” who “decapitated all my dolls.” That bit of horrid behavior, hidden in the middle of a song constructed with happy major chords, is disconcerting. It’s like hearing a tragic personal detail slipped into a casual conversation.
Even the band’s big hit, “Feed the Tree,” is centered around disturbing visuals. “They put silver where her teeth had been,” Donnelly casually throws out. “Baby Silvertooth, she grins and grins.” Lines like that infuse Star with dark greatness and literary gravitas.
None of this is meant to detract from the music itself. Bassist Fred Abong (who left the band soon after Star was released) pushes the songs along with simple, unexpected force and precision. Thomas Gorman wrangles guitar tones that echo both the twang guitar of Duane Eddy and the sensibilities of Ennio Morricone. On drums, Chris Gorman shies away from bombast to create spaces for the songs to breathe and become real.
Musician Tom Waits said, “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” I have always subscribed to that idea, and there are very few albums that reach that aesthetic as well as Star. About one-third of the way through Star, Donnelly seems to admonish the listener for sticking with the album that long. “You’re not safe in this house,” she sings on the track “Witch,” sounding like a mournful spirit in a shuttered house.
It’s true. There’s nothing safe about Star, and that is what makes it one of the greatest albums of that decade. It’s a hallucinogenic hidden inside a piece of delicious candy. You’ll come out okay on the other side of that trip, but you’re not going to forget the sounds and images you experienced.