The Muffs: No Holiday (Omnivore Recordings)

It is impossible to separate the news of Kim Shattuck’s death when listening to No Holiday, the final album from The Muffs, released mere days after her death. Her death was a surprise to the world, as no one outside her small circle of friends knew just how sick she was, compounding the shock of it all. Prior to its release, she offered up a brand new band, The Coolies, with her BFF Melanie Vammen and pal Palmyra Delran, with all proceeds going to a local ALS foundation that Kim knew well.

As a longtime fan, listening to No Holiday has not been easy. Though I received it well before she died, and enjoyed it for being a new sort of Muffs record: scrappy, lo-fi rock that could quickly change its pace on a moment’s notice, you can’t reconcile the reality of the situation. In a way, it was exciting to hear a new direction; Kim made comparisons to Guided By Voices, and she’s not wrong; several songs here are within the less than two minutes category, but that doesn’t mean that they’re hardcore punk—or even punk, for that matter. Album opener “That’s For Me” is a good case in point; it’s a complete thought that clocks in at barely thirty seconds, but though it’s molecular in length, it’s everything we’ve come to love about The Muffs, and satisfies as much as the longer songs found in their discography.

The story of the album’s completion has been that these were songs that Kim had written throughout The Muffs’ career but simply had either not recorded or had not released. Kim had a penchant for writing melancholic songs about breakups and romances and heartbreak, and part of The Muffs’ appeal is that she could hide them in catchy pop-punk songs. Yet it’s not hard to sense a coded conversation about her status throughout the eighteen songs here—songs about optimism in the face of reality (“Pollyanna”), appreciation for your partner (“Happier Just Being With You,” “The Best”), and frustration with life (“Sick Of This Old World”). Sure, each of these songs could have come from any of the band’s previous albums, but here they resonate in a way that’s undeniable. Kim never sings with anything less than her best face forward, though, and the secret of her reality is never revealed; if you’re reminded of her demise, it’s on you, as No Holiday never devolves into self-pity. You are wholly responsible for your interpretations.

For two songs, though, such is not the case. The first, “Late And Sorry” is a rocker that uses a metaphor for being late (to a first date is my interpretation) for that of death.  When she sings about being “more in trouble than I ever knew,” that she is “clearly ill,” it’s hard not to feel a lump in the throat, especially when she declares, “I won’t go out until I’m ready—that’s the way I am.” (Confession time: I haven’t been able to make it past the song without pausing to catch my emotions,)  But the tears do flow with “Sky,” where she describes looking up at the sky and wondering about waits beyond the visible eyes. A scratchy acoustic lo-fi number, it’s quite heartfelt, but the innocence and curiosity in Kim’s voice makes it one of her most powerful songs, ever.

In a conversation with her a few years ago, Kim remarked, “Being sad is easy; it’s harder to be happy.”  I didn’t think much of the line at the time, but it has always stuck with me, and that little phrase has proven to be key to fully appreciating this final album. No Holiday—in spite of its sadness, in spite of the story that inevitably comes with it—is a fitting and fond farewell to one of the funniest and most underrated singer/songwriters of our time.

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