Once those classic rock riffs kick in, and those lilting, perfectly matched voices join in harmony, the sound is unmistakable: Veruca Salt is back. “It’s gonna get loud / It’s gonna get heavy,” Nina Gordon and Louise Post warn on opening track, “The Gospel According To Saint Me,” and they’re right, in more ways than one. Even as there’s an element of triumphal return, the new record, Ghost Notes, is drawn as if by necessity to the past, picking at emotional scabs and re-examining psychic scars. The album is deeply honest and raw, as though 19 years of frustration, pain, and regrets have been channeled into a single cathartic burst of distortion. This doesn’t sound like a record the band members wanted to make; it sounds like the album they needed to make.
Which isn’t a bad thing—far from it. Both musically and lyrically, it’s a potent and affecting record, with a deep well of emotional resonance Veruca Salt never really had before. (American Thighs and Eight Arms To Hold You are both excellent albums, but they’re not exactly Leonard Cohen, spiritually speaking.) All of the elements that made those early albums so resonant are back, but the intervening years have lent some potent inner wounds to their sing-song harmonies. Ghost Notes may not have the irrepressible bounce of a youthful band in its prime, but it’s got soul to burn, and when the new songs fire on all fronts, the sound is as superlative as anything they’ve done.
It’s a record right up there with My Bloody Valentine’s MBV, in terms of unlikely career second acts. Veruca Salt—at least as most people know it—effectively ended when Nina Gordon left the band in what was by all accounts a fairly acrimonious split. (In her first post-reunion interview with Post, Gordon described the implosion as the result of “drugs and cheating and all that junk.”) Post carried on, recruiting new members and making some decent music, but it never quite sounded the same. The new album is suturing a fractured relationship, but also fractured music: There are songs on the record that were conceived back before the break. Both women have described getting back together as a deeply affecting process, and judging by the songs on Ghost Notes, there was a lot to get out in the open.
So many of the tracks are filled with painful lyrics about the past, it’s hard to know where one singer’s feelings end and another’s begin. Songs like “Prince Of Wales,” “Empty Bottle,” and “Lost To Me” are rife with memories and psychic scars. The first, with its “I remember that girl” refrain, is an earnest and wistful remembrance of things past. The latter two, by contrast, are laments for things gone wrong. “Bottle,” in particular, is the epic center of the album: A slow, pulsing dirge that alternates between almost whispered expressions of sadness and explosive refrains, in which Post and Gordon practically scream their rage and frustration about mistakes made, about roads not taken. It’s a cry of loss, of being pulled apart. It feels incredibly personal, and when the distortion pedals kick on, it comes across like tearing open a badly stitched wound. By the time the gentle coda ruminates on how age forces you to accept and live with the past, the aftermath of years of struggle is palpable.
Thankfully, among the raw and exposed-nerves confessionals like “Triage” and “Alternica,” there are genuinely great and celebratory rock songs, filled with the energy and common purpose of reunited friends fighting the same battle. “Black And Blonde” sounds like an unearthed deep cut from the Eight Arms era, complete with slow, dirty riffs and that signature sing-song bridge. “Love You Less” proves that even their wicked kiss-off tracks have improved through the years, as Gordon and Post deliver biting lines, the kind of fire they used to spit together with glee. With winning lines likes “I can count you on my fingers / That’s how small you are,” the track is the musical equivalent of a middle-finger salute.
While mid-tempo pogo-inducing stompers are the band’s stock in trade, it’s no surprise that the album’s sole barn-burner, “Laughing In The Sugar Bowl,” is also one of its best. With old-school “Oh-way-oh”s and rapid-fire count-offs to “na-na-na” nearly spilling out of the tempo, the song brings an anthemic and celebratory vibe that vitally counterbalances the psychic trauma in much of the record surrounding it. It also suggests a way forward for the group. It’s a celebration of the two of them—Post and Gordon, back together, joyous and rocking out, the past behind them. If this is the next chapter in Veruca Salt’s story, there are some good times ahead.