Sunday, 26 January 2014

Siouxsie Sunday: 'Peepshow' by Siouxsie and the Banshees

Another Sunday, another Siouxsie album, eh? The year is 1988, and after releasing the cover album Through The Looking Glass the year before, Siouxsie and the Banshees hit the studio, this time with original material. Subsequently they released their 9th studio album, Peepshow. The band's constant evolution and development was further fuelled with changes in the line-up: after Through The Looking Glass, the core trio of the Banshees (Siouxsie, Severin, Budgie) decided to continue working as a trio, and guitarist John Valentine Carruthers was to go, becoming yet another ex-Banshee guitarist. 

However, by the time they started recording the album, the line-up had once again expanded, this time to a five-piece: they recruited ex-Specimen guitarist Jon Klein and multi-intrumentalist Martin McCarrick. The latter had already actually worked with the Banshees on two occasions, having done the string arrangements for both 1984's The Thorn EP and the group's previous album Through The Looking Glass. Now however, he would join the group as a full-time member, staying with the Banshees till the rest of their career and becoming the longest-serving Banshee after the obvious exception of Siouxsie/Severin/Budgie.

Once again, the Banshees were reinventing themselves. As the arrival of McCarrick meant that the Banshees not only now had a larger selection of instruments at their disposal but also an extra member to enrich the soundscape of the album and the live performances (as opposed to their days as a quartet), Peepshow became one of their most diverse and complex albums. With that in mind, it does recall the experimentality of their 1982 A Kiss In The Dreamhouse album. Interestingly enough, Dreamhouse was the band's personal favourite record before being replaced by Peepshow, so there are some parallels between the two.

The album was preceded by the lead single "Peek-A-Boo". The playful song marked the Banshees yet again experimenting with their music, this time with hip-hop influences of all things. Sounds cringeworthy, but it isn't, and the Banshees do in fact pull it off. Its in-your-face lyrics criticise harshly the objectification of women in media, commercials and music videos, comparing the way women are portrayed as mere objects of male carnal lust to a peepshow, before asking in the chorus: "Peepshow, creepshow / Where did you get those eyes?" That particular line questions the disrespect towards women, reminding that the eyes the men addressed in the song now use to ogle women come from their mothers, from whom they were born and who obviously are women as well. Quite clever. The song went on to become one of their most commercially successful singles, even topping the US Modern Rock Tracks chart as the first #1 of the chart's history. Fun fact: the brass loop is actually a reversed sample from their previous cover of John Cale's "Gun".

While "Peek-A-Boo" sounds like an obvious single, it's release as the lead single of the album feels a bit baffling, considering the rest of the album sounds nothing like it. As a result, it does feel slightly out of place on the record. Then again, there's lots of experimenting going on so maybe that can be seen as the red thread here. "Burn-Up" for example is a hilarious Banshee hoe-down, apparently about a pyromaniac: "All fire and brimstone / This Jack-o'-lantern likes to watch / the buildings burn". It must be one of the funniest tunes they ever recorded, with the song gradually speeding up and ultimately ending with a frenzied build-up.

While "Burn-Up" sounds like a perfect soundtrack to a four-and-a-half-minute fair, the heartbreaking "Carousel" paints a picture of a more distorted and twisted kind of a fairground. Childhood traumas are a recurring theme in the group's lyrics, and that's what "Carousel" is all about - something as innocence as carousels and funhouse mirrors is taken and distorted through a child's wild imagination into a sinister carnival, set to an incredible instrumental: "Its motor whirs and colours curl / Inside your head the monsters whirl". And she makes just a simple children's carousel ride sound like the most tragic, devastating thing imaginable: "Their tiny hands, their tiny feet / Such little hearts to miss a beat".

The Severin-penned "Scarecrow", another stand-out moment, is like a proper Grimm fairytale: dark, scary and twisted. In the lyrics, there is a girl who nightly sneaks out of her house to visit a scarecrow on a hill to whom she confides her secrets. The (presumably little) girl's habits are ridiculed by other children which fuels the girl's anger: "My so-called friends they you're not alive / I'll bake their bones for telling lies / Then pull the pastry from the pie / And pour the gravy in their eye". It's powerful, stirring and very, very creepy.

Both "Ornaments of Gold" and "Turn To Stone" feature fairytale-like lyrics and are excellent cabaret-pop numbers that The Family Jewels -era Marina Diamandis would have killed for. And speaking of creepy, the eerie "Rawhead and Bloodybones" could be taken from a surreal dream sequence in a David Lynch movie. And while the group's lyrics are seldom especially cheery, the second single "The Killing Jar" is one of the more uptempo moments on the album.

"The Last Beat of My Heart" is an unexpected feat. It's an actually sincere and genuine love ballad with a lover confessing his or her love in the heartfelt lyrics: "Reach out your hand, I'm just a step away / How in the world can I wish for this? / Never to be torn apart / Close to you / 'till the last beat of my heart". The beautiful, majestic track sounded even more incredible in its propulsive live version, whereas the album version is more tender and gentle. Both are amazing, nevertheless.

It's all just calm before the storm, though - finally comes the overwhelming "Rhapsody". It is a masterpiece of an album closer, building up into a stunning climax and leaving you breathless afterwards. To end one of your best albums with one of your best songs - this is how it's done, folks.

Peepshow is a beautiful album full of distorted emotions and skilled storytelling. It is just beyond me how the band could so successfully and convincingly reinvent themselves, album after album, creating distinctively Banshees-y but still completely different kinds of records. And that's something I really adore in music: I believe good artists and bands are those who can and dare to experiment and evolve, instead of just sticking to one pattern that has been proven successful. I mean, just take Siouxsie and the Banshees - they started out as punks, experimented a bit with their style, inadvertently created a new music genre in the process, then moved on to making something that could be described as fairytale cabaret pop. The same applies for Siouxsie herself: whereas in the beginning she was known for her shrill vocals and ballsy image, here her image is inspired by silent era film actresses, her vocals are richer and more mature than ever before and she even goes operatic on "Scarecrow" and especially "Rhapsody". How about that for development.

This is a brave, theatrical album and it triumphs. It is easily one of the strongest and most ambitious Siouxsie and the Banshees records out there, and profits tremendously from the band's new dynamics and the possibilities provided by its expanded line-up. And as an album it's much more than the sum of its parts, having an excellent flow throughout - it's one of those records meant to be listened to from beginning to end. Peepshow shows us that when there's a will, there's a way, and where there is determination, there are masterpieces just waiting to be made. No wonder the band regards it as their personal best.

5 / 5

Try at least: "Scarecrow", "Carousel", "Burn-Up", "The Last Beat of My Heart", "Rhapsody" (Yes, I'm very aware that's already one half of the album but what can you do.)

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