Mary Timony Untame the Tiger
Mary Timony Untame the Tiger

Mary Timony – Untame The Tiger

Mary Timony, at last, has nothing to prove anymore. From the late 1980s onward, she thanklessly took up the mantle as a counterpoint to the onanistic masculinity around which rock had calcified. Her prodigious guitar work lay all over the primeval math-rock of Autoclave, and her vocals, coarse and menacing and effortlessly cool, defined the contrarian chug of Helium. In the video for “XXX,” she stood barefoot in the camera’s eye and met its unyielding gaze with a mutinous glare, knowing she was playing the game for, at most, a Pyrrhic victory.

Then, in the years after the seeds of her work sprouted, another battle loomed: against a culture that utterly neutralizes its participants, especially its women, as they age. It happens to all punks; you stay angry, but you lose the instinct to express that anger in ways that galvanize the world around you. Yet Timony only seemed to play harder – on the Carrie Brownstein-fronted one-off Wild Flag and Ex Hex’s thrillingly straightforward rock rip – her goal was joy, a wiser and more subversive act of resistance. Perhaps she got tired of challenging people who believed her to be a cause manifest: “I wanted to be a person, not just a person who wrote about gender issues in her rock-music band,” she explained to Boston Phoenix over 25 years ago.

Timony, now 53, is still on guard, but now her battles are the private ones that come from being fortunate enough to live that long. Personal grief drips off of Untame The Tiger, her fifth solo album and her first since 2007’s The Shapes We Make. Much of the material is colored by the death of her parents, for whom she served as a caretaker in their final years. There is no escape from the variations of death destined to haunt the living, but Timony had her songs. During breaks from her caretaking, she recorded the tracks with a bevy of musicians (including Dave Mattacks of legendary folk band Fairport Convention), finding some refuge in the process.

Ironic to the process of parsing grief, Untame the Tiger is stuffed with some of the simplest, most self-assured music Timony has ever recorded. Opener “No Thirds,” the album’s longest track, is paced like a drive on a desert highway with little but the occasional harmonized vocal and cymbal crash as roadside scenery. The song is brought to life by the bright strings on Timony’s acoustic guitar, and soars when she introduces her E-bowed electric. Her words address an absence and land on paving a way forward: “Nothing to stay for, so I’ll stay no more” she declares halfway in, always easier said than done.

It’s helpful to have prior knowledge of Timony’s history to fully understand the easiness behind these tunes. Ever since Autoclave, Timony had a reputation for laying down guitar lines that zagged at every zig. The best way to demonstrate that you know the rules is by breaking them so consistently, but on Untame The Tiger Timony is content to just let her songwriting speak for itself. “Summer” is everybody’s four-chord rotation, its slanted ending reminiscent of her fantastical early solo records. Same goes for “The Guest” and its George Harrison lead line, which might as well be the pestering loneliness Timony sings of, meddling in her quest to actually be alone. The dusty roll of “Looking For The Sun,” which opens on a slacked guitar working out bent minor chords, closes on a sustained melody over major ones, the melodic equivalent of clouds parting.

Don’t mistake a relaxed pace for inertness. Across Untame The Tiger, Timony buries the torment of her recent circumstances in that universal “you” and “I,” behind songs could just as easily be about a failed romance. Simplicity also begets ambiguity, whether in the obsessive compulsions on the deadened beat of “Don’t Disappear” or the process of moving on captured in “No Thirds.” Though she kickstarts the title track majestically on a twelve-string, she switches modes out of nowhere into a brittle upbeat rocker that addresses the thorn in her side (“What do I get for loving you? / Just this song about the pain”).

It comes to a head in ”Dominoes,” the record’s best song and, according to Timony, one that almost didn’t make the cut. It’s one of two songs mixed by guest producer Dave Fridmann, who shoves David Christian’s rim clicks and Timony’s strums right next to the ears like ticking time bombs. Between a tense verse and a cathartic chorus, Timony retraces her steps after chasing a dust cloud in the shape of a lover (“We were going 90 in the wrong direction / I was riding right beside you trying to steal back my affection”). Given that her father spent his last years burdened by dementia, that central stanza – where she meets his eyes in the middle of a promise and suddenly finds an absence behind them – reveals an even more gutting poignancy.

In straightforward melodies, lyrical subversion and airtight songwriting, Untame The Tiger reaffirms Timony as a legend in her craft. It’s about as gracefully as you can age in a culture that prefers its legends crystallized, powerless in their relative dormancy. Timony knows she’s never had that luxury. You must write your own story or let it be written for you, and right now, she would rather just be a songwriter looking to get some release after a catastrophe. Being confronted with real pain, perhaps, is how you untame the tiger after all.

Support Untame the Tiger over on Bandcamp.

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