My thoughts on Diamanda's Guilty Guilty Guilty
At first glance, Diamanda Galás' latest album reads like a collection of love songs. And it plays like one too. What's that you say? Diamanda has gone soft? The "black rose of the avant garde" is now a sentimentalist? She's become an imitation of herself? Hell no! In fact, she has become more malicious, dangerous, and that heart of hers is very cold. But I guarantee you that mainstream music critics, who have redefined laziness in their 21st century quick-and-cheap writing standards, will jump to these conclusions. But with Guilty Guilty Guilty, nothing is what it seems. In fact, it's all there in front of you. All you have to do is look and, more importantly, listen. What we have here is nothing less than Diamanda's best solo-voice and piano record in a decade.
Galás has assembled a collection of blues, jazz, and country songs. She has stripped them down and brought them to new heights. She quite literally has created a performance that resonates all the way down to the bottom of our souls. If you are familiar with her work, this should be no surprise. Her work has been described by some as music that infects the nervous system.
The opening line of the third track, "Down So Low" - originally sung by Tracy Nelson - drips with pain and anguish. "When you went away, I cried for so long," she sings with passion and urgency but she holds the notes over, emphasizing a great sadness. Well known for her excellent interpretation of blues standards, Diamanda provides a minimal and poignant piano accompaniment to her vocals which cry out with desire and longing. Diamanda's cover of Timi Yuro's "Time (Interlude)", possibly the highlight of the album, is not what I expected at all. It is an absolutely beautiful performance, faithful to the original. Stripped to solo-voice and piano, Diamanda has embraced and amplified the emotional power of this piece. As a side note, I was present at the Knitting Factory (NYC) when this performance was recorded. When she finished this song, I noted several people around me crying. Others were holding hands and embracing. And then I noticed I had a tear running down my own face. It is certainly not uncommon to witness emotional reactions, some quite extreme, at a Galás performance. I have witnessed Galás bring an audience to tears only once before. It was a performance of "Birds of Death" at Massey Hall in Toronto, circa 1997. But those were tears of sadness, anger, and most definately rage. However, it is uncommon to cry tears of love and joy at a Galás show. And she really did bring the house down with this song. Is that really what she is doing here? Singing of the warm embracing sentimentality of being in love? I don't think so.
So, what's all this then about Diamanda growing more malicious, dangerous, and cold? These songs were recorded at a performance called Diamanda's Valentine's Day Massacre. The press releases refer to this album as a collection of "doomed love" songs. As I listened to this album, I thought of Diamanda's appearance in Nicholas Triandafyllidis' documentary Screamin' Jay Hawkins: I Put a Spell on Me. Nicholas asked Diamanda her thoughts on Hawkins' famous song "I Put a Spell on You". Galas replied "You picked the wrong motherfucker to fall in love with. You want to leave? Too bad, you're not going anywhere." (Note: It's been a while since I have seen this film so I am paraphrasing...I am happy to be corrected if anyone can supply the actual quote.)
Listen to this album with murder in mind - pure homicide. In the aforementioned "Down So Low," when Galás sings "When you went away," I think we can guess where the subject of her affection has gone. About six feet below the earth by way of her machete. If you think I'm wrong, check the beautiful inner-art work of the disc. Galas, with a shovel, in the desert. "Time is like a dream, and now for a time you are mine" Galas sings, covering "Time (Interlude)." Yes, the clock is ticking. Her lover's time is almost up.
Galás, in rare form, rages through Ralph Stanley's "O Death." The piece slowly becomes a twisted blood-lust ballad as her lover realizes his time is up. We hear the doomed victim plead for mercy ("won't you spare me...") and he finds no quarter ("nothing satisfies me but your soul"). As she sings "Devil! Devil! Devil" while pounding the keyboard, achieving a kind of rapture, you can feel her stabbing her lover to death with a very sharp knife.
Diamanda has managed to produce some of the most haunting and beautiful songs of her career on this album that pull at your heart strings while all the time she is really aiming for your jugular. The title of the album, from O. V. Wright's 8 Men and 4 Women, screams at us "I am GUILTY!" Still doubtful? Just look at the cover; it is soaked in blood.