The now-defunct Distillers was a punk band led by Australian singer and guitarist Brody Dalle. She was at one time married to Rancid frontman Tim Armstrong. Their marriage ended prior to The Distillers’ third (and final) album Coral Fang in 2003 (and Rancid’s Indestructible album in the same year). Both bands’ respective albums deal with the emotional fallout of the lead singers’ marriage and taken together, provide two fascinating bookends to their shared pain.

Coral Fang is a great album and without a doubt The Distillers’ best. There is just the right amount of studio polish to allow Dalle’s ragged vocals to shine, while in no way dampening the rawness of her emotional despair. Rancid is my favorite band and Indestructible is pretty good, but objectively, hers is the better and more cohesive effort. It is an emotionally diverse portrait of a woman’s pain following the death of an intense relationship. Every inch of Dalle’s heartache and bitterness is laid bare in a potent collection of rousing and melodic tracks. Her wounds are fresh and still smarting on Coral Fang and can be felt by anyone who has loved and lost (or has ears).

In contrast, Indestructible does contain some of Rancid’s trademark bittersweet melancholy and weary defeat, but it is an upbeat and punchy album all around. Tim Armstrong expresses some share of regret regarding their disunion, but it is sandwiched between bravado and a return to male camaraderie. Dalle at times seems literally torn apart in her songs (gushing blood, as illustrated on the album cover), while Armstrong seems bummed, but eager for the opportunity to spend more time with his buds. In that way, the two albums mirror the differing gender dynamics at play when coping with the end of a marriage in a fascinating way.

“The Gallows is God” is a track that exemplifies Dalle’s emotional state. It starts out with a rumbling and clumsy guitar line, screeching and creaking as it shambles forward. Dalle’s voice is ragged and breaking as she rattles off her intense despair (“Oh, how my heart it sings suicide” is the first line) and at times graphically feminine emotions (“Oh, how my womb it licks when you dig deep inside”). She is broken and exhausted, almost near death (emotionally speaking), and begging for an end to her turmoil.

One of the things I admire is her unwillingness to sing “pretty” initially, although she absolutely can (and eventually does as the song wears on). The song is admittedly very off-putting at its start, but does become increasingly smooth and melodic as it goes, almost as if it is gradually awakening to a new day of pain and heartache. There is no attempt to draw the listener in with a soothing hook; if anything, it is a gnashing and cacophonous warning: get the fuck away from me, you don’t even want to know. The chorus is a simple and repetitive play on words (“What a surprise, what is the price?”), both pleading and accusatory. The bridge of the song lightens both musically and lyrically before sloping back down (“In the sun the willows give you shade / How they hang like a guillotine blade in the sun”), punctuated by her ragged scream.

In doing these musical illustrations, I attempt to portray the emotional landscape of the song in a single image. I try not to overthink it (a huge departure from my everyday existence, believe me), since that would stray from the purity of the song’s emotional content. Often, the images appear almost fully formed in my mind, and I try to work quickly to preserve that immediacy, as I did here. The “gallows” from the title and mention of the guillotine in the lyrics suggested slicing emotional wounds, which I interpreted literally in the visuals as a woman marked up for carving, and already dripping with blood and pain. With her head lowered, eyes closed, and hands limply covering her chest, she desires nothing but release from her agony. Likewise, a blood-red background of splintered crucifixes bring to mind that suffering, while paying homage to the aforementioned album cover. The image was originally more colorful (with a more natural tone to her skin), but I decided to desaturate  in order to bring out the red and to portray the sense of living emotional death.

 

Lyrics

Oh, how my heart it sings suicide
Oh, how my gallows sinks of black dye
Oh, how my death march brings a tear to your eye
Oh, how the noose it swings when you die

What a surprise, what is the price
What is the price, what is the price?
What a surprise, what is the price
What is the price, what is the price?

Oh, how my heart it splits when you dumb my eyes
Oh, how my gallows sinks of red dye
Oh, how the noose it smiles when you lie
Oh, how my womb it licks when you dig deep inside

What a surprise, what is the price
What is the price, what is the price?
What a surprise, what is the price
What is the price, what is the price?

Do you do it, oh yeah, do you feel it, oh yeah
Do you sell it, oh yeah, do you need it, oh yeah

In the sun the willows give you shade
How they hang like a guillotine blade in the sun
In the sun the willows give you shade
How they hang like a guillotine blade in the sun

Like a blade
In the sun
Like a blade

What a surprise, what is the price
What is the price, what is the price?
What a surprise, what is the price
What is the price, what is the price?

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