From Boston Rock, May 15, 1994:
by Bill Jackson
“The lyrics are written from my perspective.”
So says Mary Timony about her seven-song/story-plot concoction that consumes Helium’s latest release, Pirate Prude on Matador Records.
”I don’t consciously try to, it just sort of comes out,” she says about her feminism. “I don’t really define [my songwriting] in that way. I would have no problem with someone defining it that way at all, but I wouldn’t label myself.”
And after a lengthy discussion with the singer/guitarist/songwriter about the order of the songs on the CD and the meaning of the words, I’m still not clear if the protagonist Pirate is actually Timony, complete fiction, or some twisted combo of the two.
To begin the confusion, the songs on the CD are sequenced in reverse, so that the female character — who actually goes from being an abused victim to psycho killer — seems to do just the opposite. Of course, all of this would have gone over my head if not for lyric sheets supplied by the record company, complete with Timony’s plot scribblings in the margins.
You see, in this post-Pixies indie rock world I really don’t pay too much attention to deep meanderings in lyrics. But in her own way, Timony is a throwback to the whole singer-songwriter thing of the ’70s. She understands the issue and chooses to hold her meanings close, leaving the rest up to the listener.
“There’s this undercurrent of disagreement between certain people,” Timony explained. “Like Juliana Hatfield says that her words are so important, and then there’s that guy from the Pixies, Frank Black, saying they’re not important at all and people shouldn’t spend time on them. And the people in Pavement are all like not caring about words.
“Some people spend more time on the music, some spend more time on the lyrics. I spend time thinking about my words. I don’t know if it shows, but it is important to me. Not that I think that they’re that amazing or anything, but they’re meaningful to me.”
“Love $$$,” which includes self-conscious lines like “It’s been a long time since you saw your body, it looks like someone you know, like somebody, it’s not beautiful and it’s not ugly, it’s just your body and it looks like somebody else.” The song also begins the journey to the psycho killer — “You’re not a model, you’re not an angel. You’re just a person, a little out of it. You’re not an axe murderer, you’re not a monster, you’re just a person, a little out of it.”
The middle tracks enter an area that is a bit steamy and dirty, where prostitution and implied sex acts are mixed with stabs of aggressiveness. The music, supplied by Timony and the rhythm duo of Shawn Devlin and Brian Dunton (both ex-Dumptruck and currently also with Tacklebox), oozes over the dark passage like hot tar.
“It’s like you’re awakening to the fact that you’re starting to go crazy,” Timony says, somewhat embarrassed. “And you start out being that crazy person a couple of minutes a day, and then jumping outside of it, and thinking, ‘God, I’m acting really weird.’ Then eventually that person is going really crazy. And I also say ‘you’ a lot, like I’m speaking from outside myself. But by the end I start saying ‘I’.”
I, it, me, she — Timony kept moving between first and second person throughout our conversation. Yet sitting across from me in Dunton’s apartment, she was very disarming with her plain-looking clothes and melancholic facial expressions. Her stage presence, though, does have an edge. Her menacing stares sometimes seem to deliver song lines to specific members of the audience.
That aggressiveness comes out in Pirate‘s first two songs, “Baby Vampire Made Me” and “Wanna Be a Vampire Too, Baby.” Subjects of sucking blood, killing and spitting out skulls and spines mix with guitar lines that scratch and bite. “They’re really evil and awful, but at the same time I’m really being sarcastic and joking,” said Timony, offering a disclaimer. “I don’t mean that I’m a monster and I’m going to kill you, I’m just joking.”
There’s that ‘I’ again. But Timony does take the plight of women very seriously — and very personally. Helium’s last single, “Hole in the Ground” (Pop Narcotic), focused on the death of a female friend in a murder-suicide. And although Helium songs don’t try to bloody your nose with a message, as a whole, Timony paints a picture of women escaping oppression through empowerment and feminism.
Bassist Dunton and drummer Devlin have a reputation in Boston of drinking hard, smoking a lot, and being intense players, but they take Timony’s message to heart. “There are so many guy bands out there all saying a lot of the same things,” he [who? Dunton?] said. “It’s just nice to have women that I know come up and tell me how much our music, and Mary’s words, mean to them.
“It makes me aware of women’s issues and makes me strive to understand more just being in this situation with this band. I definitely think about it. I guess what I usually tell people is to listen to the lyrics, and that Mary has a vision and some kind of message that women would understand a lot better than men. I have a lot of respect for what she writes.”
According to Dunton and Timony, tracks for Helium’s next record are shorter than the six-minute epics they are currently known for. And if you believe them, the subject matter is getting lighter too, though the monster element in Pirate Prude continues.
“Like this character is being turned into a monster,” Timony tried to explain, “and these three new songs sound like haunted-house scary-monster music, but they’re even more of a joke. They’re trivializing death. They sound like they should be theme music for the Addams Family.”
In the end, it’s Helium’s studded pop melodies mixed with their abrasive sound that makes Pirate Prude so attractive. If you miss the message and the story, there is still plenty to grab a hold of. And guys, if after listening to the thing over and over you still can’t follow it, well, Timony figures maybe your girlfriend can explain it to you.
“It’s my experience that the women relate to [the lyrics] a lot,” she said. “Men tend to be like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ But women are like, oh yeah, I know what you’re talking about.”
Reprinted without permission.