The cover of Mannequin Pussy’s Patience depicts an image of the world literally on fire — which it is! We’ve got, like, how many years left on this planet if something drastic doesn’t change? But while the cover alludes to global destruction, the songs depict a kind more personal — setting fire to relationships that need to die and reckoning with self-harming ideas, necessary endings to make way to build something new.
I met Marisa Dabice, who sings/screams and plays guitar in Mannequin Pussy, nearly a decade ago in Colorado. She booked DIY shows at her house in Boulder while I booked them in Denver at a bar that didn’t ID or have a P.A. (That house is currently on sale for 900k, and I heard the dive bar started serving lattes.) We toured together later on the East Coast in 2013, and I fell in love with Mannequin Pussy. They’re the kind of band that I can’t take my eyes off of — Marisa’s stage presence and lyrics and powerful howl shake up my heart, and her real life musical chemistry with Thanasi Paul, who plays masterful guitar, is the magical kind of bond only childhood friends could have. The Philadelphia-based band started with just the two of them, but has grown over the course of three records to include the powers of Kaleen Reading on drums and Colins Rey Register on bass. It’s a fully-realized evolution, and Patience (produced and engineered by Will Yip and released on Epitaph) feels like everything the band was meant to grow into — it’s equal parts tender and tough, maintaining MP’s bruised-in-a-mosh-pit energy on a high quality, huge-sounding recording. It’s a joy to see them shine so brightly.
There’s a vulnerable brutality that seeps through Dabice’s lyrics, which she alternately howls and tenderly sings with a captivating urgency. “Who told you that my body was yours to own?” she angrily demands on the opening title track while thundering drums and guitar seamlessly propel the song forward. “Long before you called it was crawling through the wild.” The idea of physical ownership and violence runs through the record, bringing the pieces of abusive relationships that are often kept hidden to uncomfortable, but necessary light. “Pushing me up against the kitchen sink/I feel your breath on me/I can taste it in my teeth,” Dabice sings sweetly, heartbreakingly on “High Horse,” “Your words don’t count for nothing.” She’s the kind of songwriter that can tell the whole story in one image. Just that lyric displays the whole toxic cycle of abuse, from the terrifying physical violence to the empty apologies and finally ending with escape: “Your world’s on fire, and I walk away.”
On “Fear /+/ Desire” she digs further into these moments of intimate abuse surrounded by a dreamy guitar haze: “When you hit me it does not feel like a kiss/ like the singers promised,” she sings hauntingly, responding to the notorious 1962 Crystals song “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)” that was famously covered by Hole and Lana Del Rey. The original song is a deeply disturbing tale of domestic violence, and by responding to it, Dabice writes a new narrative of the reality of abuse. Instead of feeling like a kiss, she describes the body turning to mold, being held down and dissociating until she can return. “I was climbing into bed and pretended to sleep/your hands wrap around me and I silently weep.” It’s a fragile, heartbreaking moment made powerful by singing it out loud.
These moments of intense vulnerability are followed by songs that maintain the commanding rage and brevity of MP’s first two records. I can see the 54 second, grunge-y “Drunk I” played to a rowdy, tangled up crowd in a warehouse while Dabice screams “What kind of woman would you rather I be?/Docile and waiting to breed?” Her anger is cathartic and alive — listening to her scream feels like a welcome assertion of autonomy raging for the other versions of herself that could not scream in the song before.
They have the tightness and magnetic power of a band that’s played a million DIY shows together, and it really comes through on these recordings. “Who You Are” comes after the heaviness with a beautiful sweetness in a shining rock song. “I did not choose my life, and I won’t choose my death” alludes to a strong desire to live in a song that confronts learned self-hatred. “Who taught you to hate the way you are?/If I were you there’s not a thing I would restart” is a life-affirming anthem of self love — why can we see so much good in our loved ones but not in ourselves?
The perfect punk-pop single on the album, “Drunk II” is the breakup song I’ve always wanted to exist. When I really love a song, I listen to it on repeat until all the feeling has been sucked out of it and it doesn’t do that thing for me anymore, but this one hasn’t lost its emotional punch. Centered around the specific image of going out and drinking to numb the pain, the song is a self-aware portrayal of heartbreak that confronts the difference between the public and private self. Like in “Fear /+/ Desire” where she’s crying in the dark, in someone’s arms but all alone, this song shows a different kind of loneliness — out in public pretending to be alright. “I still love you, you stupid fuck” she sings to a lover she’s drunk-dialing, which is one of those lyrics I can imagine embedding in a Livejournal post if I was still a mid-2000s teen. No amount of drinks, performances of a less-damaged self (“Missy, you’re so strong” her friends say,) or new faces to fall for can drown it out. It’s a deep, aching loneliness that’s not to be fully seen; it’s to be lived in until you realize there’s no antidote but time.
On the opening track of 2016’s Romantic, Dabice screams “I am not ashamed to be lonely, but I’m afraid to feel it so deeply.” This record feels like a response to that feeling. She’s no longer afraid to feel it so deeply, and in fact, the only way out is through feeling it so deeply, and singing about it. Each song is fully-realized and deeply felt, a narrative of coming out of trauma and heartbreak as a living, feeling person who’s not afraid to drown in the sea of love again. It’s a beautifully hopeful move to end an album filled with such heartache with a song called “In Love Again.” After all the pain of abusive relationships and violent endings and confronting self-hate, Dabice still finds fertile soil for love to grow anew. It’s a testament to the emotional maturity of this record, and the band’s visceral, very alive songwriting. “I know that this love is starting again,” she sings, “and it keeps getting better.” So does Mannequin Pussy.