Songs that are measured, honest and true

“This collection of songs came out of a hard time, including loss and relocation,” singersongwriter Grant-Lee Phillips told music site Noisetrade, talking about his latest album The Narrows. That “hard time” has produced a gorgeous album of country, folk and rock which deals with those big and basic themes of the poet and the roots singer: mortality, love, identity, death, history.

the-narrows-coverPhillips’ relocation was a move from Los Angeles, where he’d lived for some years, to Nashville. He wanted to leave the city and “live with [his] ear a little closer to the ground” and he found in Nashville a studio that suited him, some “haunted” vintage instruments that made sounds he liked and some fellow musicians with whom he clicked. The result is a suite of songs that are gentle but steely, measured, honest and true.

Phillips has Cherokee and Creek ancestors in his lineage and the first single Cry Cry tells the story of the Trail of Tears, where, in 1838, Native Americans were forced from their land and sent on a death march. “In the winter when the birds don’t sing / That’s when I lost my home / When I lost everything / Kept a-walkin’ till my feet were bloody / Left everything we knew”, he sings over a shuffling drumbeat, sparse guitar and a wistful marimba line. “One thousand lies won’t make it right / . . . Cry, cry, cry.” The narrator’s sadness, carried in Phillips’ keening baritone, comes down to us through the years. It’s a deeply moving song — and a New Zealand listener can’t help but hear echoes of the lies and the theft in our own history.

Death and suffering too in Holy Irons, a story of America’s civil war. “Little soldiers all in blue and grey / Every one of us ableedin’ red /  . . . Lay down your guns and  shining bayonets / Lay down your holy irons / It’s gonna be a job to raise the dead / . . . The broken hearted Lord can only wring his hands.” Again, Phillips’ voice fair drips with sadness at the waste of life, the blood spilt “in a rich man’s war”. If only every sabre rattler in our supposedly civilised Western societies could take this song to heart.

Smoke and Sparks is a reflection on how his father approached his death peacefully and with grace and acceptance. “Come one day / When these bones give way / Gonna call my name / And I will depart / . . . I won’t be afraid / I’ll rise from the flames / Like smoke and sparks.” A member of my extended family died recently, after a difficult life, and at the graveside another cousin remarked to me, “This is a victory, eh?” It took me a moment to get what he was saying, but he was right. “No more tears,” sings Phillips. “The weight of years / Will disappear / On the day I embark / It’s not goodbye / This urge to fly / When I take to the sky / With a song in my heart.” Smoke and Sparks is for me one more reminder to live a generous and big-hearted life that will mean that when death comes it will have no sting, but rather be a victory embraced with a song in my heart.

Phillips has been with his wife Denise Siegel for more than 25 years and has a young daughter; The Narrows includes many intimations of love which surely spring from their marriage and family life. I like the crisp imagery in opening track Tennessee Rain, a big rolling swoop of a tune, which has these lines: “Long as I got as your hand / I’m stronger than a mule / I’ll take whatever’s bound to come my way / Stay by me and I won’t wander like a fool / Or vanish on the trail without a trace / You are my compass, aren’t ya babe”. Hands up those men for whom their wife has at times been a compass,
showing them the path of grace and virtue.

Rolling Pin, with its banjo and guitar riffs, is a bit of a foot-stomper. It draws a metaphor of the difficulties of love and of how a relationship has to be worked at with trust and hope that it is worth fighting for. “Heart don’t fail me now / Don’t gimme more than I can take / . . . But every night I get to come back home’s / Another that I’m truly blessed.”

He pays tribute to family history in Moccasin Creek – “Grandpa is around here” –and explores nostalgia in Yellow Weeds: “Past ain’t a place that’s built to stand / This I know, I feel it slipping through my hands.”

Slowburner Find My Way, steel guitar soaring, closes the album. “I’m beat / But I won’t be broken Hard to always know what road to choose / I’m low / But I keep on hoping / Trying to find my way back home to you.” “Very often my songs,” Phillips told Noisetrade, “are about navigating tough waters while keeping the shore within sight.” This song sums the album up: this world and this life, with all their tears and blood, are yet beautiful and full of hope and grace.

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Sam Harris

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