MUSICAL POSTCARD ART FROM A SINGER/SONGWRITER OF SUBSTANCE| Posted September 24, 2008
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a notorious gospel singer of the 1930s and ’40s, sang her songs of God’s love-light in the darkened nightclubs of her day. In the song “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us”—covered by Robert Plant and Allison Krauss on their monumental duet album, Raising Sand, and sung here by the author—Sam Phillips invites consideration of the nature of her work since leaving behind her birth name and a career in “Contemporary Christian Music.” Like generations gone before, Rosetta and Phillips have heard a word in music “above my head,” which is “echoes of light that shine like stars after they’re gone.”
The seventh album from Sam Phillips (eleventh if you count the four as Leslie), it’s her first outing as artist and producer. Now divorced from T-Bone Burnett who has been associated with her since her much-lauded “ccm” swan song The Turning, Phillips continues to make stark, focused pop reflections on the complexity of modern existence. And not surprisingly, she seems focused here, as she was on ’04s A Boot and a Shoe, on unrequited love and the search for meaning amid the frustrations and distractions that mark our troubled lives.
“Little Plastic Life” offers an incisive exposé on lives drenched with Madison Avenue’s superficial commerciality, and the music is appropriately, stunningly bright and vapid. Often, Phillips’ tightly wound, cryptic lyrical expressions suggest a haiku that will unfold with infinite layers of meaning over time. Somewhat obsessed with love’s undoing, she asks, “Did you ever love me?” in “Another Song,” and acknowledges that someone is “the chemical that never did wear off” in “My Career in Chemistry.” In the title track, she attempts to control the ‘beloved’: “I love you when you don’t go, when you don’t hide, when you don’t do anything.” Or maybe she’s so in love that she can accept it all, even unresponsiveness and nothingness.
In the end, like Sister Rosetta, Sam Phillips’ music is about finding light in dark places, and vice versa. In “Watching Out of This World” she sings of slipping past the screen, beyond the obvious, below the surface to “The splendor/The holiness of life/That reveals itself/Converting blind fate into destiny.” As a mainstream artist, Phillips’ songs rarely drift too far from her foundational, existential interest in things spiritual, while avoiding simplistic categories, labels and catchphrases. Her postcard length missives from the edge seem to capture a one-sided conversation with the Divine Lover, or perhaps an all too human one. Thus, they hold our interest and demand our attention, as real art always does. –Brian Quincy Newcomb
This review has been reprinted on NRT with permission from Christian Music Planet. Click here to visit ChristianMusicPlanet.com today!