Sally Timms – Battle Him of the Republic
A fantasy view of Sally Timms might involve a rumpled motel bed, stiletto heels and a next-to-nothing red dress. Which would explain the cover art for In The World Of Him. Does that image, to paraphrase Johnny Dowd’s “139 Hernalser Gurtel”, blow up your skirt like a patriotic wind, stiffening your mighty sword?
Timms finds that song hilarious. It supplies her CD’s title, and its lyrics are the only ones printed in their entirety in the liner notes. Throughout In The World Of Him, due out September 14 on Touch And Go Records, she weighs that sword with wit, rue, surprising empathy and absolutely no envy whatsoever.
The record represents Timms’ unified theory of the world as she knows it, at least for now. “They’re all [songs] about men but they’re really about the way the world works, too, since men control that for the most part,” she says.
In The World Of Him is much more than that, though, and also somewhat less, if it’s a feminist manifesto that comes to mind. “I was worried that people were going to think that this is my separatist, feminist, anti-men album, and it’s not at all,” Timms explains. “I mean it’s critical, but it’s also trying to understand people. I could see it if I’d written the songs, but I didn’t. They were songs written by men trying to explain themselves to women, generally. So it’s quite interesting to take those songs and then sing them as a woman, because they are all songs about how they fail to communicate well, and then there are a couple that admittedly are more generalistic and probably more overtly political.”
In trying to understand how men are different, the theme is obliquely post-feminist, an expression of how Timms’ thinking has evolved since her days amid the hyper-politicized Leeds art school scene that spawned the Mekons (she joined the legendary band in 1985). “I was surrounded by people who were just basically anarchists, lefties, feminists,” she says of that time. “People were actually rebelling, especially in punk rock….Punk was really a negation of gender. It was about kind of not playing roles, even though you can’t get away from it.”
On her new disc, Timms guides the rest of us into the world of men as they see it, trapped in men’s bodies and men’s minds, exploring just what it is that we can’t get away from and leaving us to ponder the consequences. Yet Timms’ adherence to the theme is so skillful as to be transparent; the listener is drenched in the ring of truth in her voice and understated delivery.
As much spoken as sung, Kevin Coyne’s “Just A Man” is a breathlessly urgent expression of desire, frustration, bewilderment and hope, and a plea for understanding. Ryan Adams’ “Fools We Are As Men” aches with restrained despair as Timms all but whispers the prayer with the sparest accompaniment. The two songs provide sublimely, and classically, inarticulate takes on finding and losing love.
Effective as the love songs are, those referencing war, that ultimate masculine expression, are indelible. The Mekons’ “Bomb”, long a staple of Timms’ live set, features the lines, “Lovely girls slip softly into ruin/Boys of summer scattered all around/We thought we were natural survivors/Forgive me if I go out with a bang.” Another Mekons entry, “Corporal Chalkie”, descends into manly scatology: “Seeing the sniper and the bullets in my arms/And the great big bloke from platoon thirty-two/Is calling me a poof and a stream of number two.” Former Army man Dowd’s “139 Hernalser Gurtel” contains, among a litter of lines and musical motifs relating to its gay-bar setting, this notion: “Oh what a wonderful war it was/So slick and artificial/Every uniform a meaningless waltz of detail.”
“The record obviously has a lot of resonance because of what’s going on right now,” Timms acknowledges. But, she adds, “Hopefully records that you think about always have that, because if they have any substance, things don’t change that much….The world doesn’t suddenly turn on its head. Things aren’t that great and haven’t really been that great for a while. How did people not realize that this kind of stuff was going to happen? We’ve just been living in this complete turmoil for so long and the whole situation in the Middle East is just very, very unstable, and it’s been made even more unstable by our actions.”
Timms’ rendition of Mark Eitzel’s “God’s Eternal Love” even intimates the prologue: “Those you lock away will defeat you/They know all your secrets/They wear your indifference like a boast/And your death is only the key to their future.”
“It is scary,” says Timms, “and at the same time, so little of it really impacts on us. We’re just feeling the reverberations. No one’s coming to our house and dragging us to jail or bombing our houses. The rest of the world pretty much, outside of Western Europe and the U.S., it’s in misery. There’s horrible, horrible poverty and disease and deprivation pretty much everywhere, now, and we just scoot through it being a little worried. We are so privileged, you think, how long can this go on? How long can we live like this when the rest of the world lives like crap?
“Half the country’s in denial and saying it’s all OK. It’s so completely polarized. It’ll probably be getting even more divided for a while. Maybe when Clinton was in we didn’t notice it so much because we [liberals] weren’t the ones who were really pissed off. I’m sure that the right spent that whole period just fuming, and now it’s our turn to fume as we watch a very, very dangerous administration do whatever the hell they want to do.”
If love and war are the alpha and omega on In The World Of Him, Timms still explores a broader alphabet. Sean Garrison’s “High Dosage” furnishes a painful insight into a mind at war with itself. “I think he struggles with a lot of little demons,” Timms says of the obscure Garrison, a Louisville songwriter with credits on two Freakwater releases. Jon Langford’s “Sentimental Marching Song”, the opening track, is what Timms would call “more generalized.” It portrays the male affliction (“all men the same”) — profoundly isolated, “cocooned in a fist,” “born to brutalize” — and its poignant conclusion: “He needs a little love at closing time.”
In her only songwriting contribution, “Little Tommy Tucker”, the closing track, Timms seems to respond to those who treasure that sort of maleness: “Buy a piece of linen/And make yourself a shroud/To mourn those hands/You’ll never know.” Her refrain, “None shall be married,” seems a warning to both genders, suggesting that the commitment question may never finally be resolved.
Beyond the lyrical theme, surrounding it, ahead of it, is the thoughtful musical vision that was its launchpad. Timms has for years considered how to make an album that would integrate folk and electronic music — “to merge low-grade electronic sounds with more acoustic instruments but still have structured songs going over them,” she explains. In fact, the project was on Touch And Go’s release schedule for some time in the late ’90s while Timms struggled to realize it.
It was Johnny Dowd and his band who finally brought her idea to life on In The World Of Him. “They’re very open; they definitely had a sound that I wanted to appropriate, and they let me do that,” Timms says. Dowd’s arrangements are remarkable in their range and the subtlety of their weirdness, supporting and emphasizing Timms’ evocative vocal treatments, yet providing enough structure and consistency to unify a collection of songs that were incongruously diverse in their original versions.
“I needed something that made them all fit together musically because they are all over the place,” she admits. “I’m pleased, but I don’t know what people will think. Will I just alienate everyone?”
Timms’ concern isn’t misplaced. In The World Of Him is a vastly different enterprise from her last record, Cowboy Sally’s Lament For Lost Buckaroos, released by Bloodshot in 1999. “It’s musically quite dark and it’s spiritually dark and the whole thing seems quite weighty. And it sounds very different,” she observes. “The Cowboy Sally record was so cutesy and it’s a nice record and I’m glad people really liked it, but it wasn’t really me, or maybe I just became insanely depressed after it. I don’t know how tasteful this record is. It’s a mood piece, and I was obviously in a mood.”
In the five years between the two records, Timms has appeared on four Aluminum Group releases, two Mekons albums, both Jon Rauhouse solo records, and seven compilations, including Bloodshot Records’ tenth-anniversary release and all three volumes of the Pine Valley Cosmonauts’ The Executioner’s Last Songs series. Now she also, barely, handles press for Langford’s new label, Buried Treasure, an venture he launched last summer with two CDs for internet-only sale. With her typically wry humor, Timms says, “They didn’t want to pay very much and they wouldn’t have to pay me very much, but it would probably be better than nothing, which I think is a very true and apt description of my job as a publicist for them.” And how is it going? “I’m getting them some [publicity] right now. I’m co-opting my interview for their sake. It’s not really a big deal for most people, completely understandably.”
Timms plans a November tour with Dowd and his band, and she’s unconcerned that the artful nuances of this, her most thoughtful project to date, might be lost on fans of her Mekons and Bloodshot-related performances. “I think I’ll play in art galleries from now on!” she jokes, adding, “We’re trying to play more conducive places this time around.”
Of her rowdier fans, she says, “They’re fine if you put them in a room where you can’t get alcohol and strap them to their seats. They’re like me.” Next April, though, she really will be playing in art galleries. Langford has asked her to perform in a project he’s presenting at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
“It’s based on a lot to do with the abolition of the death penalty work that he’s doing,” she says, “but I don’t know exactly what the concept is because he hasn’t briefed me yet. I can’t think for myself unless I’ve been briefed.”
Sounds like a girly thing.
“I think lots of women and probably lots of men really don’t know what gender truly is,” Timms says. “You know your body’s different, but what does that mean? I just think it’s about, ‘What does it mean to be a human being?'”