About the same time I first listened to Sour Cherry Bell, I was also in the middle of a novel by Steve Erickson called Shadowbahn, in which two siblings speed across a strife-ridden American West, occasionally hearing rumours of a phantom highway that spans the United States. The album and the book are now twinned in my mind. They each cast a thousand-yard stare into the near future, fixating on new history as it approaches us at high velocity.
When she released her previous album as MJ Guider, Precious Systems, Melissa Guion noted that it drew inspiration from speculative fiction. (I’m guessing her song “White Alsatian” is a reference to a figure in J. G. Ballard’s High Rise.) Sour Cherry Bell is a much more forceful record, and even though it’s still surreal, I’m not sure that it’s as science fictional. It’s just as sensuous and color-saturated as her last record, but the stakes are more immediate.
With climate breakdown, social stratification, and surveillance capitalism on the rise, we have an uncomfortably intimate relationship with the dystopias we’ve imagined for ourselves. In a 2019 interview, Steve Erickson described his current concern about writing fiction at all, explaining, “the current reality leaves my imagination in the dust. I can’t keep up with it.” In a similar way, Sour Cherry Bell is adamant about being more than a thought experiment outpaced by reality. You can hear this in some of Guion’s most discernible lyrics, like in “FM Secure” when she declares, “I used to live in silence, but now I make some noise, now I make some noise.” The album confronts the circa-2020 anxiety that’s diffused itself through our bodies and minds.
But it does more than that: it gives us the power to turn that anxiety into pleasure, into something to explore. So Guion lets the songs breathe, allowing us to inhabit them. A track like “Simulus” could easily be a compressed three-minute pop number in another songwriter’s hands, but here it’s stretched out to five. The crushing beat in “The Steelyard” develops for half the song before Guion says a word. Everything lasts a little longer than it needs to, and that’s kind of the point. That added time is the difference between a cursory look at our strange social-emotional condition and a considered immersion in it.
The patient pace doesn’t make these songs any less intense, though. When the beat picks up in “FM Security” after Guion says, “now I make some noise,” it’s a rush to hear. The gradual takeoff of “Body Optics” or the murky roar of “Quiet Time” are all acceleration in repetition, surroundings hurtling by in a blur. Some people compare Guion’s music to that of the Cocteau Twins, but when I listen to Sour Cherry Bell it actually reminds me of the rap group Dälek—all thick drones and booming beats played from inside a wind tunnel. More than any other album I’ve heard in the last few years, it makes me think of this old Maxell commercial.
Guion maintains that intensity without inducing exhaustion, carefully balancing bangers in the second half like “Simulus” and “Sourbell” with wispier pieces like “Perfect Interference” and “Petrechoria.” Even after a relentless forty-five minutes, it’s easy to feel strangely centred, even energised—a little more assured in facing whatever stranger-than-fiction events the coming weeks and months bring. Sour Cherry Bell is an eerie fun-house that grants us a little more control over our most timely anxieties. It’s great Halloween music in a year when every day is Halloween.