There are some experiences whose power over you is difficult to escape. Some messages and lessons simply slide into the cleft of your brain like a letter in the mouth of a postal service box—gliding down its gray, vein-marbled walls to the base ferment of your mind, where they take root like the rhizomes of a venomous hosta.
Some understandings of the self that these experiences embody are capable of haunting you for decades—like a shadow that is nestled out of sight but whose presence always clouds the periphery of your perception. Living with such reality can be like inhabiting a bewitched house, where its occupants are both the residents and the phantoms that spoil its grounds.
Celestial Blues is like an act of expungement by singer and songwriter Kristina Esfandiari, aka King Woman. It is also an act of self-manifestation. It is a way of riding her mind of freeloading ghosts. And a way of making her their master. It is an attempt to plunge so deep into the sea of subterfuge and antagonizing memory that shifts and claps in the lightless caverns of her subconscious that she can hit bedrock, pull the plug, and empty it like a bedpan into a sewer drain. It is also her assuming the role of Poseidon over whatever salty mix takes its place. Succeed or fail—it’s worth it to her to dare to try.
Esfandiari was raised within Charismatic Christianity. It’s a set of Christian beliefs that emphasizes the gifts and works of the Holy Spirit and represents a migration of Pentecostal beliefs into more mainstream Protestant and Catholic faiths. The upshot of being raised with this tradition is that you are taught to believe a number of doctrines that are not representative of, or recognized by, the majority of practicing Christians. And it can mess you up.
Esfandiari has deprogrammed herself enough to function in the broader world since removing herself from her family’s church during her 20s. Still, there are obviously some things about her experiences there that have a hold on her. While most of her career in music touches on her formative experiences in this faith, Celestial Blues has the feel of a concerted effort at severing the residual tethers that still bind her psyche to the great, weighted stone of this past.
One of the ways that Esfandiari accomplishes this exorcism is through the deployment of imagery and embodiment of biblical character. The image of herself as a corrupted and wingless angel on the cover of Celestial Blues is an apparent reference to Satan, the rebellion of the perfidious archangel, a character whose travails, delusions, and lectures she gives voice to on the furtive dirge and hypnotic descent of “Morning Star,” as well as its desperate inverse “Psychic Wound,” where her breathless, hyperventilating vocal performance intones the beast attempts to dislodge herself from her maker, pulling at her psychic chains with little care to the point of dislocation and mutilation, in an act of destruction rather than liberation, a struggle that is both sickening and charismatic in its resilience and self-deception.
The song, I think, is an acknowledgment that you can not live solely as the opposite of the thing you hate if you wish to be free of its hold on you. It is impossible to live as a shadow or a pure negative. You are always in the process of making something new, or becoming an independent person. If you can’t embrace this fact, you will only ever know pain.
The composition of the majority of the tracks on Celestial Blues aren’t exactly metal, but they do hit within the same weight class as heavy, cosmic doom projects like Om and Sleep, but with a much more directed, concise sense of guitar melody and groove. These grooves are primarily utilized in service of the Esfandiari’s vocal work, to add emphasis to certain phrases, hardening them or providing momentum as appropriate.
Although, more illuminating comparisons are probably best made to grunge acts like Hole. The outbursts and melodrama of the characters Esfandiaris embody, especially on the brooding tones and gauging thrust of her performance on tracks like “Coil,” feel straight out of the more notable turns and sonic rebukes that characterized Live Through This. If you ever found yourself hungry for a slice of grunge music that was uglier and more visceral than what even Alice in Chains had on offer, Celestial Blues is like a buffet catered with you in mind.
Through embodying characters whose flaws and internal contradictions, no matter how relatable or justified, act as ciphers for her own struggle for self-actualization, Esfandiari has performed for us here a morality play of sorts whose purpose is to shed light on the darkness and self-deception that runs through all of us, like a black river that feeds the pungent waters of a festering swamp.
The moral, then, is that work on the self is hard, but is always worth the effort. The work of constructing one’s self out of a set of seemingly broken, minuscule pieces may be arduous as it consists of a set of tasks that feels nearly endless. However, it is a small set of costs, worth paying in exchange for a sense of identity that can survive outside a precipitous pit of anguish.