Album: A Kiss in the Dreamhouse
Artist: Siouxsie and the Banshees
Released: November 6th, 1982
Highlights: Cascade, She’s a Carnival, Melt, Painted Bird
Despite often – and rightly so – being labeled as one of the forging forces of the gothic rock movement, Siouxsie and the Banshees were rarely strangers to the concept of light. It is undeniable that when the band started their career with the sequence of “The Scream” and “Join Hands”, there was little space in the ominous darkness of their work for some luminosity to break through. But by the time their third effort, “Kaleidoscope”, came out, the idea that there was not enough room for artistic creation in the tight corner in which they had originated seemed to be quite clear in the minds of the band members, and so Siouxsie and the Banshees began to expand their sound in order to allow light to leak into the music.
To a point, such evaluation could be made about any gothic rock outfit that lived long enough to question themselves about the direction in which they should go next; eventually, in most cases, the music got brighter. But following “Kaleidoscope”, Siouxsie and the Banshees developed a very unique relationship with light. The Cure, their most popular followers, for instance, would go on to constantly operate inside the extreme dichotomy of utter gloom and joyous bubblegum pop, producing songs that were entirely in only one of those two camps. For Siouxsie and the Banshees, though, light and darkness never achieved total domination over one another, transforming most of their discography – especially their classic run – into a display of how those two elements could coexist.
During that period, there is little doubt that “Juju”, their fourth album, stands as the strongest proof of that formula’s greatness, as the popularity of singles “Spellbound” and “Arabian Nights” ought to confirm. But it is its successor, “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, that qualifies as the most interesting piece, because in it what is bright and what is sinister converge in rather intense states. The result of that radical mixture is a record that although firmly anchored in the post-punk tradition is also able to drive straight into psychedelia; merging the grayness of the British industrial towns that generated angry and dark acts such as The Fall, with the daring artistic extravagance of someone like Kate Bush.
The despondent post-punk undercurrent comes from the mechanical clank of the drums and bass; as it happens in the songs of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ contemporaries, Joy Division, these instruments loom tall, serving as the body of the tracks and broadcasting an uncomfortable aura thanks to their inhumanly steady plod. Meanwhile, the colors come from what is built on top of that framework, which – in the case of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” – turns out to be quite a lot. Specifically, the album is not notable because it brings keyboards and strings into the equation; the former had already been used to great effect in “Kaleidoscope” and the latter only appear in two songs. “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is actually remarkable due to how audacious it is sonically, as its tunes – straightforward in construction – are decorated by layers of noises, overdubs, and effects that lend the pop contours of the band’s music one lush body.
The oddity of the parts greatly benefits from the versatility of Siouxsie Sioux herself, a woman that could sing – without ever feeling out of place – in a graveyard, at an avant-garde music festival, at a pop show, or in an opera house. And throughout “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, the singer and the Banshees make good use of that wide palette. Over a hypnotic and robotic duel of bass and guitar, “Cascade” dramatically builds to its chorus three times; and in every instance, it does so differently, with new instrumental lines and noises appearing in each run. “Green Fingers” takes a similar approach, but rather than feeling like a build-up, it is more of a constant rush adorned by occasional distorted hums and one quirky psychedelic hook played by a recorder. “Obsession”, meanwhile, follows the opening pair with industrial minimalism; part sinister march and part haunted nursery rhyme, the song is a repetitive melodic line sung over what appears to be a rainy landscape which is punctuated by a beat constituted of a guitar and a bell, as well as by the occasional appearances of menacing strings.
“She’s a Carnival” brings a radical shift of pace and mood to the album, throwing listeners into a hyperactive celebration of love that perfectly captures the vibe of the song’s festive title. In “Circle”, on the other hand, the once happy carnival seems to have taken a disturbing turn; led by a keyboard that plays what is best described as the sound a carousel makes when it is either broken or stuck in a bizarre time loop, the tune is a dissonant mass of elements that clash as Siouxsie sings about how children are negatively affected by the bad behaviors of their parents. “Melt” takes “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” back to the denser atmosphere of its first few tunes with a wide and majestic dream pop song that is, in both lyrics and music, drenched in sexual pleasure.
“Painted Bird” is, in the vein of “She’s a Carnival”, another slice of energetic pop rock, but in it the omnipresent darkness is more palpable, not only because of the grand cutting guitar line played by John McGeoch and the discomforting vocal overdubs by Siouxsie, but also due to how the song deals with the shocking story present in the book of the same title, where a man paints birds in a different color and returns them to their flock only to see them killed by their peers. “Cocoon” is bepop jazz but with a twist worthy of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”, as the band appears to improvise a simple shuffle over a thick layer of odd sound effects and an echo-laden atmosphere. And “Slowdive”, which merges crude post-punk instrumentation and strings, describes a dance that – thanks to the moves it includes and the song it should be performed to – is ideal for a decrepit club whose attendees are mentally deranged or greatly affected by drugs.
There are times when the off-the-wall experimentation of “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” dents it to different degrees: “Circle”, though conceptually excellent, verges on annoying because of the cycle in which its keyboards are stuck and of its length; “Cocoon” is a unique take on jazz, but could have benefited from firmer hooks; “Obsession” has a captivating melody, but its instrumentation could have been more developed; and “Slowdive” works as a post-punk dance number, but does not really leave any considerable marks. However, when “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse” is firing on all cylinders, it displays one of the finest and most inventive bands of the era doing what they did best; that is, packaging both light and darkness into accessible songs that push the envelope in artistic terms but retain an irresistible appeal. Siouxsie and the Banshees may have produced a few records that are better than “A Kiss in the Dreamhouse”; they have, though, never been as fascinating, jarring, psychedelic, and extreme as they were in their fifth release.