Sam Phillips: “Don’t Do Anything”
“Help is coming-one day late.” Those are the last words Sam Phillips sang on her 2004 masterpiece, A Boot and a Shoe, the final twist of the knife at the end of a record so full of heartache, humor, and hope, it could only have been made by an artist at the peak of her powers, and only then in the midst of unspeakable sadness. That sadness was the breakdown of her marriage to T-Bone Burnett, and though it sometimes sounded like she was just barely able to keep going, her obvious torment proved to be the crucible in which she forged her finest poetry. Certainly that album was a far cry from her more caustic, cynical works like Cruel Inventions and Omnipop; like the album that came just before it, Fan Dance, it was an album riddled with mystery and intrigue, a tantalizing, complicated cycle of songs about broken hearts and God’s redemptive love.
Naturally, going through a divorce is a big deal, and since it brought out the best in her art, it’s not too surprising that her latest, long-delayed follow-up-2008’s Don’t Do Anything-is, to put it crassly, a sequel. She’s very much dealing with the same issues here, still plumbing the depths of heartache and betrayal for glimmers of grace-though, if anything, this album is even darker and sadder than the one that came before it; where A Boot and a Shoe was surprisingly playful and nimble, this record sounds like it’s processed through the same distorted effects and sinister cloud of Cruel Inventions.
Of course the divorce still stings, and here she talks about it with greater bluntness than the last time around-“Did you ever love me?” is one of several pointed questions that pops up. And that’s not the only thing on her mind; there are also pained references to the shaft she’s long been given by the music industry and by some of her previous record labels, despite her uncanny talent. “Imagine no one noticing you,” she begins one song, and it’s hard to blame her for feeling that way. But as dark and troubled as these songs can be, she never loses her conviction that grace makes beauty from brokenness. What do you do in the fact of heartache? “You write another song,” she answers on one song. Indeed, she invokes music as a way to channel grief into beauty throughout the album, such as on the standout track “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” recorded last year by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. She should take heart-this album and the one that came before it exemplify the way in which art can make beauty from chaos.
The absence of her former husband is felt keenly in the lyrics, but, musically, it’s as though he never left; though Phillips produces this set herself for the very first time, it’s clear that she learned a lot from T-Bone, as she exhibits a sharp ear for what sounds good. Fan Dance and A Boot and a Shoe both displayed a sensualist’s taste for sonic details, like the creaky sounds of old wooden instruments, and that aesthetic is present here as well, even though Phillips has traded her acoustic guitar for an electric one on many of these songs, and piano takes a stronger role than ever. But despite the presence of the electric guitar, this isn’t at all a return to the melodic rock of Martinis and Bikinis; the guitars aren’t used to rock out so much as to create brooding, ominous atmosphere, and, more than ever, Phillips focuses on sound as much as she does song.
An album as honest, as deep and as rich and as well-crafted as this is sure to stir the hearts of many, and indeed, for some fans, this might just become the essential Sam Phillips recording. Technically, it’s as good as anything she’s ever done; for this listener, though, it falls just short of being as moving as her last couple of records. It’s certainly not because the album is flawed, just that it doesn’t surprise; not only is she dealing with the same themes of her last album, but she even uses many of the same images and metaphors, which robs the album of the kind of mystery and drama that made the last one so special.
Consequently, the best song is the one that finds her venturing farther away from the tropes of A Boot and a Shoe-the title track, a genuinely affecting anthem of unconditional love that’s as soaring and as hopeful as any U2 song. Maybe it’s sung from the perspective of the Almighty, or maybe from Phillips herself-either way, it’s the brightest beacon of hope here. And there are several other tracks that immediately become essential. “My Career in Chemistry” explodes with the twitching energy of Jay Bellerose’s drums, and Sam’s lyrics are some of the most darkly comedic she’s ever written. “Under the Night” is a brooding, thunderously beautiful lament highlighted by aching swells of strings from the Section Quartet. And “Shake it Down” is a sinister little march that sounds like it was spit out of Tom Waits’ junkyard, right down to the rattling percussion and spooky banjo.
The final song, “Watching Out of This World,” is so brief, so fragile, it sounds as though Phillips can barely stand to sing any longer. She doesn’t need to. She’s already given us another album of such supple grace and beauty-the kind that comes from trying times-that it’s sure to be.