Of all the alleged pop recordings issued in the year 2000, none is more beguiling, lovely, and confounding than Hannah Marcus' fourth album. Over the 12 tracks that comprise Black Hole Heaven, a certain set of themes introduce themselves both compositionally and lyrically, and further one another as the recording plays out.
Black Hole Heaven is anything but a "black hole" of a record. While its subject matter is often subterranean -- loss of ideals, faithlessness, drug use, the endless pit of love and its nadir, etc. -- the thread that runs through this wondrously perverse and often harrowing carnival ride is a motivation to report the state of life as it is, and then to transform whatever adversity or blessing is encountered into the next stage of living it. Contradictions are central, both lyrically and compositionally. Faith and despair entwine with each other as lovers, tragedy, and laughter casually drink together at the well of wisdom, and delusion and clarity breed children that transcend both, mutating into a form of heavenly being.
Marcus composes all over the place -- from the danced-out Brechtian rock & roll of "Lot 309," to the simple country waltz of the title track, to the shimmering, elegiac, bliss-out, slippery beat science that is "Osiris in Pieces." Loaded with visceral imagery, the latter song attempts to find some meaning in the human wreckage caused by substance abuse. In slow, striding measures she sings, at first almost journalistically: "Osiris in pieces, into the screen he stares/And he builds his little cities where they don't need any air/And he lights his glass pipe and swivels in his chair/And snickers as he says what if I never/What if I never." As Tim Mooney's drums and Marcus' guitars and keyboards slip the thread through the needle of the song's easy tempo, the horror becomes real. The tension builds musically as does the singer's anger, until finally she lashes out: "Your ship so full of holes it won't be long before it sinks/And your heart's not made of stone it's made of sh*t and man it stinks/I'm long done choking on your sugar-coated disrespect/I'd like to rip your f*cking throat out and plant a tree inside your neck."
Elsewhere, "Morning Glory," another sweet, sad, country-tinged ballad, examines mortality as a look back through the metaphor of a flower. And then there is the gorgeous and lilting "Los Alamos," one of the ten greatest breakup songs ever. It begins with sampled voice-overs from some old movie or TV show, and enjoins both singer and drummer to a course of sad exploration. Hip-hop rhythms slither in and guitars slip and slide through and under the mix, although never pronouncing their identity as a force. The music underlines the almost spiritual tenderness of the lyrics. Marcus sounds as if she is lost in her emotions here, allowing herself to be overtaken by them. The sampled voice continues to chant "infinite space" as she sings of a reverie of disintegration and loss and the sorrow of having transcended the season of love.
In all, Black Hole Heaven is Marcus' most complex and satisfying record to date. One can hear everyone from Scriabin to Dolly Parton to Leonard Cohen to Tom Waits to Roberta Flack here. It grasps everything that can be found in holes -- in caves, in the earth, and in the human heart -- and creates a mystical musical experience from the muck and clay found there. Unlike Charles Baudelaire's dictum that one has to be enmeshed in darkness in order to transcend it, Hannah Marcus creates a paean to love as another part of everyday life -- to be witnessed, experienced, and moved through. She is a poet and a composer we can learn from.
Black Hole Heaven accepts all the contradictions of the human spirit. Marcus has given us an often harrowing, sometimes humorous, always tender meditation on some of the places encountered in the cycle of life, and shows us some we are terrified to visit. It's hardly possible to ask a pop record -- and this is a gorgeous one -- to do more.