Been Here and Gone by Thalia Zedek

Release date: July 23, 2021
Label: Thrill Jockey Records

After spending the 80’s making various shades of post punk and no wave noise and the majority of the 90’s fronting the dark roar of Come, Thalia Zedek was thinking that she wanted to hear herself sing. On her wonderful solo debut Been Here and Gone she steps out in front of quieter arrangements with songs that are still just as heavy. Originally released by Matador in 2001, the album celebrates its 20th anniversary with a reissue on Thrill Jockey, joining her others, a lost sheep returned to the fold.

I love this record. It has been a dear friend over the years, a quiet and consoling place to hide. If it’s not uncommon to find comfort in music so alone and wounded, it is a rare treat to refocus your attention on something familiar and find that it’s richer and deeper than you even thought. Still holding secrets after all this time. For one thing, I never paid much attention to the cover, hadn’t really considered how direct it is. A heart hangs in the night sky, a ladder reaching down to the earth, Been Here and Gone. No kidding. A heartbreak album, undercut by that lack of sentimentality running through the songs.

From the opening “Everybody knows that you’ll be leavin’, leavin’ me behind, an everybody knows what’s gonna happen, I’m gonna lose my mind” through to the final kiss off “Til you come back to me, that’s the way it will be, every day in the life of a fool” it sits with its hurt and self hatred. There’s no melodramatic syrup, no hearts and flowers, just shaky mental health and existential dread. All the dark thoughts in flowing pencilled lines. Not just broken love but the fear it might never return, or stay if it does. That it might not heal. That it might not be enough.

The songs mostly address a non specific ‘you’ but they feel internal. A conversation in a dark mirror where all your bitterness and guilt comes straight back. The first lines of ‘Back to School’, “You can go back, to your ivory tower. I can go back, to my favourite bar” pulls us up a seat in a dark empty room, to stare and drink as the storm clouds roll in. Calm at first, the music swells with barely held emotion, throat tightening, eyes pricking hot, before regaining its composure.

Spacious in feel Been Here and Gone folds more traditional American threads in with the avant-rock of Zedek’s earlier work in a totally natural way. Built around David Michael Curry’s viola and Mel Lederman’s piano it establishes a template for the sound her band continues to explore even now. Their playing is often spare, making room for Thalia’s voice and bringing extra weight when they all come in together. It’s very different to Come’s bleak noise rock but there’s a continuity of personnel involved, most notably Chris Brokaw. There’s some great guitar across the album from both of them but it’s in another register, stepping to the back. They dance around each other on the opening of ‘Temporary Guest’ clearing a path for Lederman’s piano to come through leading an unlikely parade of the broken to the corner of the block and back.

This reissue is the first time the album is available on vinyl, there is no bonus disc flotsam attached. Usually I don’t care that much about that sort of thing but here both decisions play to the record’s strengths. Been Here and Gone is a complete and unified work which, I only notice now, discreetly divides into two sides. The torturous, conflicting impulses of ‘Treacherous Thing’ run on into a cover of V’s ‘1926’ so that the first side ends with Zedek in despair “panting like a dog at the edge of your bed”, murmuring over and over “Your God hates me.”

From that helpless low point the second side begins the slow process of climbing out of the hole. Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ finding some fatalist solace and bringing the album’s wildest moment as its Greek folk dance structure kicks up its heels. Spell broken, ‘Desanctified (Full circle)’ rakes through the guilt and ashes and the lovely, delicate ‘Somebody Else’ attempts some consolation. Drawn to the first side’s gloom these are songs I’ve slightly overlooked but none more than the bright wordless dawn of ’10th Lament’. Perhaps easy to miss the instrumental on an album that foreground’s Zedek’s voice and writing but it brings a glowing release from all that has come before, a gently rolling crescendo of ringing guitar, the band lift up their head, breathe deep and face the new day.

Coming out the other side the album closes with Thalia leaning on the barroom piano singing an old standard. It brings hope mixed with acceptance. Hard lessons and fading hurt spun into torch songs. Been Here and Gone is maybe less a heartbreak album than a dark night of the soul, it is bereft, as turned inwards as you are when you reach for it, but it finds its way back to the light, it still believes in love. I worked out quickly that its comforting sadness was not for everyone, so it goes. For me, it’s a perfect record. Not a note or a sigh out of place, and it only gets better with age.

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