I have been listening to the voice of Siouxsie Sioux since the 1981 release of "Spellbound," the first single off of Siouxsie and the Banshee's classic Juju album, a record often cited as the progenitor of all things goth. Siouxsie has evolved from post-punk to goth to alterna-pop as the ferocious front-woman of the Banshees, and explored various world musics with Budgie, her drummer husband and Creatures collaborator.
Siouxsie is now 50, divorced from said husband and, after 30 years in the music business, has released her first solo album, Mantaray. She has always been a bit of a chameleon; anyone following her career won't be a bit surprised with her updated sound and the exploration of yet another sonic space. No longer Siouxsie Sioux, Mantaray marks the dark diva's arrival as another of those one-named artists, just Siouxsie -- though I suppose she's been that all along.
The album opener, "Into a Swan" announces Siouxsie's return with a grinding, propulsive beat and the mantra, "I feel a force I've never felt before." Indeed, it bursts onto the airwaves, with a fierce statement of intent, twisting a new-found sense of purpose into a threat. The song is irresistible. No matter the quality of any Siouxsie album, she has always known how to make a proper single. Even the low-point of the Banshees' career, 1991's Superstition lead off with "Kiss Them for Me," an instant classic. At their best, Siouxsie, the Banshees and The Creatures create music that coils itself around the ears and burrows deep into the brain.
The second track, "About to Happen," with its cheesy synth line and simplistic dance beat, is a throw away. Press the skip button and move on to "Here Comes That Day," a slinky ode to comeuppance. The song is full of humor, drama and swing, with dazzling big band horns and an (oft mentioned) Shirley Bassey flavor. This is a direction Siouxsie has mined before with The Creatures' 1984 cover of "Right Now," but "Here Comes That Day" sounds urgent and modern.
All in all, there are three songs on the album that I can take or leave. "One Mile Below" sounds like a mediocre Banshees B-side and the album closer "Heaven and Alchemy," which would fit perfectly on a Tina Turner record, is just too mainstream a sound for Siouxsie. Perhaps it's unfair to ask her to push harder. How many pop masterpieces should we expect from one artist? Unfortunately for Siouxsie, each album whets the appetite for more -- more experimentation, more growth and more drama. And the drum track on "Loveless" just makes me miss Budgie, one of the most innovative drummers ever to anchor a pop band. Too bad their divorce settlement didn't include a clause forcing him to drum for his ex-frontwoman forever.
Ultimately, Mantaray is an album about the divorce. On it, we find a more exposed Siouxsie, battered and bruised, picking up the pieces from a life-changing event and persevering, if not ready yet to move on completely. "If It Doesn't Kill You" communicates this point perfectly, in high, James Bond-theme style. (Again this phrase pops up a lot, but it's just too apt.) "If It Doesn't Kill You" harkens back to classic 007 themes of the sixties and reminds us of Siouxsie's place at the center of pop, not on the "alternative," "punk" or "goth" sidelines.
My journey through the album proceeds from "If It Doesn't Kill You" to "Drone Zone," which sounds like a collaboration with The Real Tuesday Weld, a combination of sampling, horns and vocals reminiscent of Depression era music, oddly appropriate for Siouxsie's muscular voice. I move through the "Sea of Tranquility," a gorgeous mambo that reaches poetically for the stars. It's the one song on Mantaray that sounds truly hopeful, with Siouxsie pondering infinity -- "there are more stars in the sky than grains of sand" -- and finding a state of grace.
"They Follow You" is, for me, a perfect coda, the music soars to the pop heavens. Vaguely retro '80s and oddly European, it could be a song from anywhere and just about anytime. "They Follow You" also contains my favorite lines on the record, "Sew up these tears. Stitch up this smile. Embroidered tears drown the wishing well." It's touching to see the woman known round the world as the "Ice Queen" make herself so vulnerable.