Karen Carpenter is an unlikely punk icon. During her heyday, The Carpenters specialized in easy-listening pop schmaltz: squeaky-clean songs served on a platter for future Reagan voters. And yet there is something about the singer—and the story of her untimely demise, in 1983, after struggling for years with anorexia nervosa—that has captivated subsequent generations of punks and noise-rockers.
It started with Sonic Youth, whose eerie 1990 song “Tunic (Song for Karen)” envisions Carpenter up in heaven, greeting Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin. Several years later, Sonic Youth appeared alongside a number of ’90s alternative mainstays, including Babes in Toyland and The Cranberries, on a 1994 tribute album to The Carpenters. “[A] lot of certifiably hip acts have been singing Karen and Richard’s praises lately,” reported the Los Angeles Times that year, with palpable wonder.
Now, 37 years past her death, Carpenter’s influence has trickled down to Patrick Flegel, former singer of the bracing and undersung Canadian noise-rock band Women. (“I found a deep interest and comfort in [Carpenter’s] story, which is a cautionary tale about the monstrosity of show business, stardom at a young age, and being a misfit looking for connection,” Flegel says in the press materials for What’s Tonight To Eternity.) In the near-decade since Women’s messy collapse, several of Flegel’s bandmates resurfaced as the post-punk band Preoccupations. Flegel has pursued a more unusual path: dressing up in drag and performing what they have termed “confrontation pop” under the name Cindy Lee. What’s Tonight To Eternity, Cindy Lee’s fifth and undoubtedly best album to date, is the culmination of this project, a haunting and surreal exploration of gender dysphoria and expression set to spectral pop textures.
While every Cindy Lee album wields an uneasy juxtaposition of melody and noise, Flegel strikes a remarkably precarious balance between the two on What’s Tonight To Eternity. This is especially evident on “I Want You to Suffer,” a marathon seven-and-a-half-minute highlight that mutates from technicolor art-pop that sounds so brittle it might crumble to sheer, cacophonic noise and then back again—except now the tempo has been slowed to a mournful crawl. In the next song, “The Limit,” the melody and noise components are one and the same, lodged inside of a woozy waltz that sounds damaged and distant, like it’s being beamed down from space. Midway through, Flegel’s vocals are dispatched by a symphony of vintage Disney strings, which gives the song an aura of long-ago elegance.
The influence of Carpenter, and of The Supremes and other 1960s girl groups, shines through in the record’s unusually tender melodic sensibility. “One Second to Toe the Line” overtly channels that era with its staccato guitar tone and darkly infectious call-and-response melody. The ghostly vocals, and their lingering pall of sadness, prevents it from resembling any conventional ’60s homage. “Heavy Metal,” contrary to its cheeky title, is a honeyed waltz that layers its dueling vocal parts as delicately as any Ronettes song. Other chunks of the album, notably the title track and “Lucifer Stand,” swap out the oldies pop instrumentation for menacing synths. The latter song utterly marinates in evil, fading out with a creepy spoken-word passage about confronting Satan. Nearly all of it works.
Unlike the nasally warble familiar to Women fans, Flegel’s vocals are swooning, high-pitched, androgynous and, yes, still slathered in reverb. The effect is often quite haunting, and it deliberately subverts the harsh masculinity embedded within the feedback and noise squalls that abound (“Speaking From Above”). It also conveys the album’s overlapping themes of alienation, queer identity and gender dysphoria, all of which are wrapped up in the skewed pop sonics. The words themselves are often obscured by reverb, but it is possible to sense overarching themes of punishment, conflict, impossible love and hidden identity from the passages that are intelligible. In “I Want You to Suffer,” Flegel sings: “The self I’m still concealing / Sucking me dry.”
This is bracing and damaged pop music about what it means to be an outsider in a world where the Karen Carpenters don’t always survive. What’s Tonight To Eternity also functions as an elegiac salute to the ghost of Women, a band that left us too soon and never quite received its due. The last song, “Heavy Metal,” is in fact a poignant dedication to Women guitarist Christopher Reimer, who died in 2012. “One step closer / Come on back to me,” Flegel croons in a tender, jukebox-quality refrain. Later, they beg: “Give me one more day / When the sun speaks your name.” It’s a lush and beautiful song, at least until its final few seconds. After the song’s fadeout, Cindy Lee shows us out with one last gasp of groaning guitar noise, like a fleeting final salute to a fallen friend.