[Editor’s note: On Fridays, we are going to review classic (in our opinion) albums and revisit the old days in our music histories here at The Typescript].
Sisters of Mercy
Sisters of Mercy released their last album in 1990, some 29 years ago. Vision Thing, however, was a pretty righteous swan song. Heavier, nastier, and more pissed off than their earlier work, Vision Thing found the Sisters veering closer to Ministry and an industrial sound than their earlier goth/postpunk sound. The Sisters were always the project of frontman Andrew Eldritch, whether earlier members of the band would agree or not. And on this album, he was joined by the only other consistent member of the band, Doktor Avalanche (the drum machine), as well as Andreas Brühn, an unknown German guitarist, and Tony James, formerly of Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Generation X. Vision Thing was the Sisters’ best-selling album, at least in North America.
The recording of Vision Thing was difficult. Up until the end of 1988, Patricia Morrison was the bassist of the Sisters, and she was around on the pre-recording work for this album before allegedly being fired and replaced by James. Meanwhile, Brühn had been hired after the previous guitarist, John Perry, turned down Eldritch’s offer of a collaboration. The album was recored at PUK Studios in Denmark (where artists as diverse as Elton John and Depeche Mode have recorded). Apparently, at one point in the recording, James told the band’s manager that this would be a 5-song album, which the manager was having none of. That resulted in a final product of 7 1/2 tracks. I’ve never been able to figure out which is the 1/2. The band also ultimately decided not to use the final mixes for most tracks, instead choosing to release the monitor mixes for the most part. This has always made me wonder what the final mixes sounded like, given the processed, industrial sound of the music here.
Vision Thing kicks off with the title track, based on then President George H.W. Bush’s famous ‘1000 points of light’ speech. In fact, most of the album is an indictment of Bush, the Elder’s foreign policy.
And from there it veers off into the chugging ‘Ribbons,’ a love song in which Eldritch is ‘thinking about her skin’ as well as her cobalt red eyes and cobalt blue voice, and noting that ‘she looked good in ribbons.’But it ends with him screaming ‘Incoming!’ over and over at the end, as if in a trench. Eldritch’s voice was always the Sisters’ best weapon, all menace and swagger. And on ‘Ribbons’ he is in fine form. This is not the only love song on the album, as on ‘When You Don’t See Me,’ Eldritch declares that he doesn’t ‘exist when you don’t see me/I don’t exist when you’re not here.’ And, of course, the first single, ‘More’ is a love song.
And if anything, this album is remembered for ‘More,’ which was the Sisters’ first and last #1 single in the US. It hit #1 on the Modern Rock chart in late autumn 1990. This is an epic track, starting off with a processed string loop and a piano riff before the guitars, bass, and Doktor Avalanche kick in. It is a vicious track, a disaffected love song. Eldritch excoriates his lover for being too passive, for being undemanding, and noting that he wants more.
The video is also all early 90s cool, hitting almost every rock’n’roll trope of the era. There is Eldritch and the band, in black leather, Eldritch in shades. A fan is blowing his black hair all over the place; he looks more Ian Astburty than Andrew Eldritch here. The soundstage, in particular, is so 1990. I always saw videos like this as being fake-ish the sound stages ruining it. My cousin, who is an artist, disagrees with me, she always saw the aesthetic (we had this discussion c. 1991 over her favourite video of the moment, the Black Crowes’ ‘She Talks to Angels’).
At any rate, ‘More’ was on heavy rotation on MTV and MuchMusic, so much so that one day, skipping school, I was flipping the channels mid-afternoon and there was ‘More’ on regular rotation on Much. It wasn’t shunted off to the ‘alternative’ show on Friday nights. As much as I loved this track at the outset, I got sick to death of it before long.
And then there’s the politics. The title track is an excoriation of Bush, the Elder’s foreign policy, as I’ve noted. And then ‘Detonation Boulevard’ starts off with a slide guitar riff before veering into perhaps the most accessible, straight-forward track on the album, a sort of love song for the open road in the Bush I era. But, of course, when Eldritch sings, it’s not so cute and cuddly. ‘Doctor Jeep’ makes the mundane sinister, noting the linkages of arms dealers, Hezbollah, and bombs in the desert. All of this before the First Gulf War.
But, ultimately, for my 1990 self and my 2019 self, it is actually the two ballads on this album, ”Something Fast’ and ‘I Was Wrong’ that hit the hardest. ‘Something Fast’ starts off with an acoustic guitar, with Eldritch borrowing from Allen Ginsberg’s epic ‘Howl,’ and his Catholic upbringing. Stuck in a depression in some late night bar in an existential crisis:
You can stand all night at a red light anywhere in town
Hailing Marys left and right
But none of them slow down
I’ve seen the best of men go past
I don’t want to be the last
Gimme something fast
I could and did play this song on repeat in 1990-91 (though I was nothing compared to my sister, who once played the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of U2’s ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ 70-something times in a row before I tore the tape out of her tape deck). Nearly 30 years on, it maintains its brilliance for me.
Then there’s ‘I Was Wrong,’ a muted and almost pretty song about a breakup. It follows ‘More’ and is the album closer, and seems the other half of that song. This is also one of Eldritch’s best songs in terms of his lyrics:
In a bar that’s always closing
In a world where people shout
I don’t wanna talk this over
I don’t wanna talk it out
I was quite impressed until I hit the floor
Well, isn’t that what friends are for?
Pain looks great on other people
That’s what they’re for
I was wrong.
I was wrong to ever doubt
I can get along without
I can love my fellow man
But I’ll be damned if I’ll love yours.
And that was it from the Sisters. Vision Thing was their last album. Sure, they released two excellent compilation albums in 1992 and 1993, Some Girls Wander by Mistake (also a Leonard Cohen lyric, as their very name comes Cohen), and A Slight Case of Overbombing. Some Girls is the entirety of the Sisters’ recordings from 1980-83, whilst Overbombing is essentially their greatest hits.
Eldritch has not released music since. He and the Sisters have continued to tour, I saw them in Montréal sometime in the 00s. (See above for a version of ‘Something Fast’ from 2017 in Stockholm). Eldritch has both speculated on new material and suggested he couldn’t be bothered in the past two decades. So, if this is the band’s swan song, I’ll take it. Surprisingly, at least for me, Vision Thing remains a classic album.