“Flowers in December,” by Mazzy Star (1996)
Maybe the most powerful tool in the singer’s toolbox – right there next to talent and ambition – is mystique. Dylan’s got tons of it. So does Bowie, Jagger, Gaga and many others.
But nobody does mystique like Hope Sandoval.
Wait … who?
Hope Sandoval was the singing half of the 1990s duo Mazzy Star, with guitarist David Roback. I would say that I saw her in concert several years ago, after Mazzy Star dissolved, but that’s not literally accurate. Yes, I attended her live concert, meaning I spent a few hours in the same room as her, but I’m not sure I “saw” anything.
Sandoval is famous for performing in darkness. So that night – at the Brookdale Lodge of all places – I listened to her sing while watching only a faint specter of her body occasionally emerge from the shadows, a thin backlit blue halo outlining her head.
Sure, live concerts are all about the music, but in the bargain we expect them to at least give our eyeballs a little something to do. I first cursed the venue for bush-league incompetence. But when no one else seemed annoyed, it struck me: This was her mystique.
To those who love Sandoval, she is a ghostly presence, a soul too tender for this dirty world with a gift for expressing such a refined sense of sorrow, she breaks your heart with a whisper. To those who don’t love her, she floats in formaldehyde, a parody of too-cool-to-care self-absorption.
Count me in the former camp. When she applies that feathery voice to the deliciously chilly ballad “Flowers in December” – “They say every man goes blind in his heart” – I am suspended in a weird kind of hypnosis. There is an ache of desolate longing in most of Mazzy Star’s material that I am powerless to resist and it achieves perfection in “Flowers.”
For the record, I fell in love with Sandoval long before I saw photos of her, but the fact that she’s seriously gorgeous only enhances her mystique.
She never looks in the camera and she never smiles. She is distant, behind glass, unknowable. She is Wednesday Addams in street clothes; Stevie Nicks without the theatricality. She is lost in some place of finely burnished melancholy, what the Brazilians would call “saudade.”
And she’ll take you there, through songs like “Flowers in December.” The song is an aural narcotic – a sneaky and ethereal guitar line, a small, swelling harmonica, a mournful violin and then Sandoval’s hushed voice, descending from somewhere over your head, like the fog in a black-and-white movie.
At the Brookdale Lodge, Hope Sandoval said almost nothing to the audience between songs. The blue darkness of the place even began to feel natural after a while, as if we were all vampires feeding on tears instead of blood. Though our eyes kept trying to discern her face in the shadows, the music took on more flavors and dimension robbed of distractions. There was beauty enough in the sound.
That, boys and girls, is how to do mystique.