SHOENFELT FOREVER: ‘Cassandra Lied’—New Dark Gem in Prague King’s Crown

By Thor Garcia

Phil Shoenfelt
Cassandra Lied
Produced by Phil Shoenfelt and Chris Hughes
2020, Sireena Records (
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PRAGUE (CNS)—We must now add Cassandra to the list of Shoenfelt’s tragical and magical, cursed but indomitable women. And what a venerable harem of witches, muses and femme fatales it is: Alice, Marianne, Magdalena, Veronika, Charlotte, Martha, Carolyn, Black Snake Woman and the Raven. What’s the deal with Cassandra?

The ravishing Princess Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, promised Apollo she’d open her legs to him. When she didn’t get around to it, Apollo got angry and cursed her, ensuring that no one would believe her predictions. And folks did not believe her—though everything Cassandra said about Greeks hiding in the wooden horse and the destruction of Troy came true.

There’s no shortage of folks in the modern world raising justifiable alarms about the collapse of human civilization—and, just as in Cassandra’s day, most people can’t get around to really believing it and taking action. That’s just how people are, I guess—another of the legacies of Cassandra’s “lie.”

In Shoenfelt’s case, other options come into play. The “lying” Cassandras could perhaps be regarded as those who predicted that Prague’s reigning expat rock superstar would be dead well before now—that the addictions and dissolute living should’ve made him an early occupant of some potter’s field. At this point, we can say: Shoenfelt’s one of those rock and roll suicides who never got around to dying.

As Shoenfelt moves toward his seventh decade, with 20+ albums under his belt and a 50-year performing career, Cassandra Lied is a defiant laugh in the faces of his critics and doubters. Shoenfelt long ago proved he wasn’t going to lay down and die—and this record will cement his status as a courageous confessor, valorous demon hunter and indie conquistador. The man from northern England, who survived poverty and heroin slavery in New York City before deciding Bohemia was home, stands tall as a Prague icon of a generation.

Fans will not be disappointed: the material on Cassandra Lied is as haunting and stark as Lario Tus’ cover image of a figure in a black dress exiting a godforsaken farmhouse at dawn, leaving who knows what behind. This is a Shoenfelt record, after all, and the lyrical landscape is, necessarily, unforgivingly desolate and bleak. It is necessarily strewn with mangled bodies and splintered psyches, cloudy with nightmares and disobedient succubae, swollen with cries for mercy, fraught with the bitter poignancy of defeated idealism.

In Shoenfelt’s world, it’s a certainty the truce between Good and Evil has been shattered, leaving the two sides no choice but to ambush each other in an unending death match in which the loyalties are constantly shifting. In this world, it’s a given that everybody’s dead, dying or bonkers. The inevitability of crushing loss—the unavoidability of love winding up disfigured and finally extinguished—the vexing knowledge that death is simultaneously futile, a relief and crucial—hang over all.

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Happily, the music of Cassandra Lied reflects Shoenfelt’s craving, especially of the last decade, to push the tempo and kick out the jams. Each of these 15 cuts is propulsive, sharp-edged, nervy—and there’s not a meandering, coyote-call ballad or bluesy, portentous dirge among them (not that there’s anything wrong with these—in fact, they’re some of Shoenfelt’s finest works). The tunes here are spaciously atmospheric but have relentless spring in the knee. They dance and weave and cannily jab, continually delivering blows—eventually connecting on enough pulverizing shots to take the unanimous victory in a technical knockout. Whatever Shoenfelt’s been adding to his morning coffee, it’s working.

The record, which times in at a double-album length of 76+ minutes, is a more than worthy successor to 2010’s riveting and 2015’s scorching The Bell Ringer live set, both recorded with Southern Cross. It was on these earlier records that Shoenfelt dusted off his rock boots and rejuvenated a career that, by the end of the ‘00s, had become increasingly violin-based and goth-folkie, even distractingly self-conscious and formal.

Shoenfelt has always been a wonderful crooner, Morrison-esque growler and deadpan stylist, and he exudes well-earned confidence in these modes across Cassandra Lied. His voice is husky with sorrow and self-reproach, brutally serious about the treachery and betrayal that mark human behavior (including self-betrayal, most of all). In the absence of Southern Cross’ brawn, Shoenfelt seizes the opportunity to explore different textures, to push himself beyond the structures that made his name. The result is a record that is like nothing else in the Shoenfelt canon. Less topical than, Shoenfelt has called Cassandra Lied a “deeply personal” exploration that was years in the making.

Shoenfelt, who played guitar, bass and keyboards, is substantially aided by guitarists Chris Hughes (who also played drums) and Kristof Hahn, of experimental noise band Swans, who played lap steel guitar on five tracks. The trio generate an intense but layered, post-punk grind that is musically suggestive of Joy Division, early Jesus & Mary Chain, the Velvet Underground, Neil Young and mid-70s era David Bowie. The guitars chime and churn, displaying flourishes of dissonance, country, blues and surf-reverb. Drummer Hughes, a veteran Shoenfelt collaborator, is comprehensively lively and masterful throughout, maintaining affairs at a pulse-accelerating rate. In particular, Cassandra Lied is thick with echoes of Robert Fripp’s sustained background guitar drone/whine that was made famous on Bowie’s “‘Heroes.’” Rather than just a one-off, as it is on Bowie’s album, Shoenfelt employs Fripp’s concept as an essential sonic weapon on multiple tracks.

With Shoenfelt, though, you’ll find none of the lazy nostalgia, obscure references and cloying mawkishness that plagued Bowie’s mid- and late-70s output. Cassandra Lied finds Shoenfelt still locked in devastating torment—profoundly noir, disconsolate yet dangerously acute. Shoenfelt remains a Manichean liege lord of Prague’s specters and spirits, a chief prosecutor of the grief and guilt that cross the lines and sentence us all to doom. He continues to cut himself open and expose himself to withering self-criticism. Shoenfelt remains as possessed by the fall from grace, and obsessed by the false prospect of deliverance, as ever.

1. GHOST SONG—Shoenfelt’s probing bass and overlapping guitars by Shoenfelt, Hughes and Hahn build an hypnotic aura in this driving ode to obsession and possession. Some kind of powerful, ancient she-beast has seized control of the narrator’s head, infesting his dreams, blurring the lines until her wants have become his—and until, it seems, he finally becomes she: ultimate possession/transmigration/nothingness achieved at last. My flesh is weak and her spirit’s strong, Shoenfelt declares. She died a long, long time ago / She doesn’t want to be alone / My name is written on her headstone / She doesn’t want to let me go. . . .

2. I HATE MYSELF TODAY—The album nearly immediately hits the depths with this gorgeous broken-hearted slab of guilt-tripping. Chris Hughes’ ebow guitar lends a “‘Heroes’”-like Wall of Sound atmosphere to the proceedings. The narrator informs: Just for a moment / I thought I knew what I could be / Just for a moment / Then you took it all from me / And now I hate myself / I really hate myself. Alas, everything was “just an illusion.” The narrator thought they’d arrived in heaven, but now they’re suddenly “back in hell” due to someone’s insane head-fuckery and their own delusions.

3. SHADOWLAND—The story is paradigmatic Shoenfelt: There’s only darkness in someone’s soul, and they live in a tiny attic room, staring out the window into the mirror of the moon. There’s madness and panic in their eyes. All that’s left is, well, nothing: There’s darkness in the light / Everything is over now / You’ll disappear from sight / I see the emptiness / And the skull beneath the skin / I hear the laughter / From the evil place you’re in / Only fear and emptiness / Is it life or is it death? Petr Holovský's blistering tenor saxophone uncoils across the track, adding a potent, scary touch of “off the deep end.”

4. JUST A MAN—Saying “Hey, I’m just a man” or “Come on, I’m only a human being” has always been the most worthless of cop-outs. In Shoenfelt’s hands, the threadbare excuse becomes completely devastating. Shoenfelt goes all the way, insisting to his interrogator that his “demon” has taken control—and please, no questions about my beastliness—hey man, I’m just a man! The concept of “man in God’s image” has clearly collapsed of its own absurdity. Drums thunder tribally beneath acrid guitar lines. Shoenfelt booms, When you come to question me / With hatred in your eyes / You’re not the one you seemed to be / But this is no surprise / And if I need protection / From the demon that I am / Don’t question my integrity / Just save me if you can / I’m just a man.

5. RESURRECTION DAY—Hughes’ urgent beat and Hahn’s restive lap steel whine conjure a Sisters of Mercy-style barnburner. Shoenfelt returns to one of his reliable themes: No escape. No, not even Death will help you here. I’ve been evil, I’ve been bad, Shoenfelt sings. I blew every chance I had / There’s gonna be a price to pay / But I don’t regret it / No, I don’t care anyway / Resurrection Day—it all comes back to you.

6. FLY AWAY—One of the album’s standouts, this has the feel of a valedictory—prematurely, one hopes. “Fly Away” is a rare of glimpse of the sentimental Shoenfelt—and it only works because this track is absolutely majestic and glowing. The video for this track, beautifully filmed in Berlin and showing Shoenfelt at his most magisterial, is recommended viewing. Shoenfelt is telling us the shattered life cannot be glued back together, nothing can be reconciled—all that’s left is to float off into the Grand Illusion: Now the days are getting shorter / and my life is almost done / Will there be time to finish / All the things that I’ve begun? / I tried to keep a balance / between the Evil and the Good / Between the Devil and the deep blue sea / I did more than I should / So fly away.

7. COMPLICATED—The relative lightness and incessant pom-pom, pom-pom-pom singalong aspects give this track something of a Traveling Wilburys feel (or is it ABBA? Boney M?). You’re in a parallel dimension / Ever since you went away / I’m losing all my concentration / One day up and one day down / It’s a complicated situation. Er—one didn’t know Shoenfelt was much of a Katy Perry fan (or is it Avril Lavigne?)—but who knows. For their part, the Rolling Stones’ “Complicated” appears on the 1967 album Between the Buttons.

8. CATHY SAYS—One of the album’s catchiest tunes, this one worms into the brain and stays there. Lyrics-wise, one gets the feeling the narrator had an affair with a vivacious Czech girl in her early 20s. The fellow was excited, thought it could “lead somewhere”—only to have the wisdom of Cathy’s happy naïveté blast the whole daft business to pieces. Cathy says she just can’t compete / With all my lies and self-deceit / Did I think it’d last forever? / That’s such a fantasy / Heaven knows I’m on my knees / Oh Cathy, won’t you, please? One does wish these girls well. Most of them usually seem to eventually do all right for themselves.

9. PSYCHO—An absolute hoot of a track—call it peak rollicking Shoenfelt. Enlivened by frisky surf guitar, this tune relates the tale of a bloke who shoots his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend—and then the girlfriend—because he “couldn’t bear to see her having fun.” The bloke then confesses he also killed his parents—mother, who “never gave me love,” and father, who “said I was no good.” A certain “Mr. Whiskey” gave this narrator guidance on how to handle his problems—and Now I’m sitting on Death Row / There’s only one place left to go. Something of a more ebullient cousin to Shoenfelt’s “The Killer Inside” from 1993’s God is the Other Face of the Devil album. And the list of Shoenfelt songs about killers continues to lengthen. . . .

10. IONIAN DREAM—Taut, menacing bass lines melt into the anxious drone of Chris Hughes on a BBC radiophonic workshop guitar. The lyric finds Shoenfelt washing his hands of corrupt human civilization and the lamentable illusions that motivate this species. The fabled land of Ionia, of course, suggests the story of Cassandra and the Battle of Troy. The narrator confesses: Once I was a sinner / I killed the one I loved / The Devil raged inside me / I’d whip him if I could / Some men live for pleasure / Some men die in pain / Some men find salvation / In a wilderness of shame / And when I was a solider / I said I’d die for you / But I was just a coward / Nothing I said was true. But even such self-lacerating exposure is for naught: This world is an illusion / Believe it if you must / And if you find a meaning / It will surely slip away / It’s only there to trick you / To lead your mind astray.

11. KINGDOM COME—Shoenfelt’s gorgeous chiming guitar chaperones this solemn march to oblivion. This is the first of two consecutive tracks where Shoenfelt mentions that crushing phenomenon known as “love” at least semi-positively: I’m defined by the sins I’ve done / Been crucified for what I’ve become / And I won’t know till the race is run / If it’s forever / And I know where the kingdom lies / Yes, I know but I’m mystified / By the love that I feel inside.

12. THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF DARKNESS—Perhaps the greatest ever Shoenfelt song title. The relative positivity comes from the fact he’s talking about the New York Dolls, Ramones and Suicide, about Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie—all gents, one feels, that Shoenfelt indeed views as representing the “brighter side” of the darkness. As only a handful of these blokes are still amongst the living, the tune can also be regarded as a tribute to Shoenfelt’s departed heroes. Kristof Hahn’s lap steel screams jubilantly as the band smashes gloriously through the empyrean like an untethered space cruiser. Shoenfelt intones: The love I feel inside makes me feel so alive. Yet as good as it is, he knows this can only be something short-lived—another illusion that dissolves into mist like all the others: And the darkness at the break of day / Turns the world around, but nothing stays.

13. WHEN DID THE FEELING DIE?—This track could be seen as something of a prequel to the much crueler “Tired of Loving You” from Shoenfelt pesters his partner: There’s no loving in your eyes / When did the feeling die? This is the “evil, bad” Shoenfelt narrator—the obsessed, demon-possessed figure who, in this case, seeks to blame a lover for the deadness he feels inside. The bottleneck guitar of Southern Cross’ David Babka burns a nasty groove across the track. The energetic backing vocals of Marcia Schofield (Shoenfelt’s ex-wife and former member of Khmer Rouge and The Fall) and Anna and Vanais Newman indicate the accusations are flying from both sides. I hear the voices in my head / Telling me I’d be better off dead, informs the despairing narrator. Too much darkness in my soul / Love or death will set you free / Will you still remember me? / I miss you too much baby / There’s no loving in my soul.

14. QUEEN OF EMPTINESS—The album rounds off with this deceptively bouncy ode to liminality and death. The track shares something of a kinship with the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” with harmonica by Shoenfelt giving it an extra kick in the pants. Shoenfelt counsels against hoping for anything more than a sweet lady of darkness to escort you to your final resting place: So don’t wait for revolution / For the center will never hold / The evil tide keeps right on coming / And the kingdom is within your soul / Yeah, she’s the Queen of Emptiness / She remembers everything I said / Yeah, she’s the Queen of Emptiness / She’ll lead me gently into death.

15. THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD—A gutsy move to record this for the bonus track. I’ve always felt Bowie’s original was interesting sounding but too squishy, lacking spine, while the crudity of Cobain’s much more famous cover overdid it in the yowling department, sapping the original of much of its strangeness. Shoenfelt borrows some of the backbone from Cobain’s version but chooses to accentuate with atmosphere instead of aggression. Sublime keyboards by Shoenfelt and shrewd drumming from Hughes elevate this to a noble and praiseworthy entrant.

Thor Garcia

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Published on August 13, 2020 09:42 Tags: album-review, cassandra-lied, music, prague, rock-and-roll, shoenfelt
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Thor Garcia
Reporting on the news with Thor Garcia, journalist and author of THE NEWS CLOWN, ONLY FOOLS DIE OF HEARTBREAK, and TUND.
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