Happy 25th Anniversary to Lush’s third studio album Split, originally released June 13, 1994.
There are occasions when a band’s best album is their least commercially viable. History reminds us that The Velvet Underground’s albums only found audiences with those very people who went on to form some of our favorite bands. Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique (1989) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) failed commercially; yet, they shaped—and continue to shape—popular music in their own inimitable ways. To measure musical success by Soundscan numbers and Billboard chart rankings is to fail to understand the impetus behind making art.
By 1994, London’s Lush had released two genre-shaping works that left indelible impressions on artists and fans alike: Scar (1989) and Spooky (1992). In spite of grunge’s monolithic influence during the early ‘90s, Lush had managed to land a spot as the opener on 1992’s Lollapalooza tour. Wearing a t-shirt gifted to them by the band Silverfish during their performance in San Francisco that read “HIPS, LIPS, TITS,” Lush were the only female-fronted band on a testosterone-heavy line-up.
Today, however, it would be easy to label them as a relic of tokenism, especially in the face of male dominance that included Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden. And by Lollapalooza founder and Jane’s Addiction front man’s own accurate admission, Perry Farrell, he described Lush’s sound as “music to soothe the savage beast,” which was a much needed contrast to the agro sounds of summer.
“Sweetness and Light” introduced the alternative music world to Lush, and their video was a mainstay on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Miki Bereyni and Emma Anderson created the illusion of tender landscapes, only to have its firmament serrated by a rusted razor. Sounds both honeyed and harsh, Lush fashioned a world of its own, separate from the abstract influences of Cocteau Twins. Their music was direct and less glossy than their influential 4AD counterparts.
The perpetual comparisons to “shoegaze” revolutionaries My Bloody Valentine failed to see the nuanced distinctions between Lush’s music and MBV’s. Berenyi composed and performed with a Rickenbacker 330/12—a guitar sound that created a closer likeness to The Byrds and contemporaries Ride than MBV’s—at times coupled with distortion and delay, and at other times shaded with softer, cleaner hues. Late drummer Chris Acland’s experimentation with different time signatures provided Lush with structures that made them rock more than many of their close contemporaries. In the end, Lush was a rock band fronted by two women who wrote brilliant songs worthy of their own distinction.
On what seemed like the verge of commercial success, what came next for Lush was nothing short of abject commercial failure. 1994 proved to be a transitional period in music. Bookended by Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Green Day’s emergence, Bands like Lush found the climate too difficult to pioneer through. Anonymity yielded Lush’s finest work: Split. More explorative and more elegantly composed than Spooky, Split arrived on the heels of the long, hot Lollapalooza grind and their extensive world tour in 1992. The band spent some of 1993 recovering from touring, but they also possessed an artistic momentum that molded the band’s newest offering.
Where Spooky’s producer—and Cocteau Twins’ chief songwriter and production aficionado—Robin Guthrie layered sounds and effects that sometimes muddied and interfered with Berenyi and Anderson’s songwriting, Mike Hedges, the once Cure and U2 producer, stripped away plenty of the layers, forcing them to the surface and allowing them to flourish on their own.
Split’s opener, “Light from a Dead Star,” fastens a quiet tension with subtle strings before muted bells chime beneath Berenyi’s conceit about dispossessed love. Anderson and Berenyi’s harmonies are pure and not understated or covered by an overdose of effects. Hedges’ production showcases pristine orchestration, a component not found on Spooky or Lush’s previous EPs.
Some of Anderson’s compositions, such as “Desire Lines” and “Never-Never,” are meditative and patient, spreading across time and space with patience and sweet serenity. “Desire Lines’” floating instrumental interludes tie together the two verses’ quiet, monotonous vocal harmonies with dynamic bursts and guitar lines reminiscent of the solo on The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Set Free.” The song floats forward without any clear resolution.
Likewise, “Never-Never” bears a similar slow-wave-crash tempo against harmonies that float in and out like the spurned lovers’ narratives they describe. Both declare freedom from Spooky’s original constraints, allowing Lush to continue their search for an identity separate from their shoegaze contemporaries.
Strangely, the album’s first single, “Hypocrite,” feels out of place with respect to Split’s totality. Thematically, however, it fits perfectly. The song’s best line, “I’m a hypocrite / I can dish it out / But I can’t take it,” is a blunt kiss-off to the tired act of bad lovers. The video barely stayed in rotation long enough for listeners and viewers to know that Lush had released their follow-up to Spooky. But the melody is infectious, and the guitar lines hint toward “Ladykillers,” the band’s brief conversion to the Britpop movement in the mid ‘90s. “Blackout” lashes out with a punk rock ferocity, stripped bare of its chorus-and-reverb-laced guitar effects. Again, Lush peels away the layers, allowing for the song to stand on its own without burying its charm.
“Undertow” is what Spooky would have sounded like if Hedges, not Guthrie, had produced it. A beautifully crafted extended metaphor for offering help to someone only to have that person refuse it, “Undertow” immediately finds its groove, etching it directly into the mind, body and soul. Phil King’s bassline is hypnotic and creates a setting for Berenyi and Anderson’s otherworldly vocals to twist and wind around each other.
Split bridges Lush’s past to its all-too-brief future. The band never found commercial success, and their last album, Lovelife (1996), rid itself of the band’s distinctive fingerprints—space, time, sound, harmonies and atmosphere. In a 2014 interview with ghostlife, Berenyi called Split a “bit of a rite of passage” saying that they faced record label and marketing expectations “a bit battered and bruised,” in the end becoming “a much better band, both on record and live.”
And like Berenyi’s statement they survived if only briefly, and became an influential band worthy of their low-key position in rock & roll’s underground canon. The Dum Dum Girls, Blouse, Grouper, and Vivian Girls—just to name a few—borrowed from Lush’s palette of lavish harmonies and opulent soundscapes that invent new worlds to enter and to submit yourself to discover something you may, or may not, have been looking for.