Why I Love What I Love: 30 Favorite Recordings, 2000-2009 (Part V)
06. Andrew Bird
The Mysterious Production of Eggs
I used to think “pop” was a dirty word. Then came Andrew Bird and his magnificent sleight of hand; here he uses every trick up his sleeve to create a pop album that’s marinated in the creative juices so long, it’s mutated into a monstrous masterpiece of imagination and unbridled joy. For all his virtuosity as a musician, Bird’s greatest gifts are here revealed to be his melodic gift, his love of words, and his refusal to play by the rules. The result? A record that feels more in line with Lewis Carroll than with any precedent within popular music. Bird’s tunes peel off into all kinds of strange directions, taking weird detours and never landing where you think they’re going to, but what makes the album truly astonishing is that, as daring and downright odd as it is, it’s nothing if not accessible, a supremely enjoyable, tuneful album that qualifies as pop of the highest caliber. And how fitting that the decade’s most fearless pop album is itself a sweet valentine to creativity itself; Bird wrestles with his muse here in a way that’s quite literal (though never straightforward), tugging at the nature of inspiration, the power of art, the fickle nature of imagination, and the corrosive effect of those dark forces that seek to enslave us with uniformity and cliche. It’s a dizzying delight, and it still surprises and entrances me today.
05. Sam Phillips
A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
I’ll come right out and say it: I think this is the greatest divorce album of all time, a breakup souvenir that does Blood on the Tracks and Sea Change one better. What makes it a richer, deeper recording is that Phillips isn’t content to play the sadsack melancholy, or to deliver tabloid-ready, tit-for-tat details of a nasty separation. Instead, she uses a season of grief as a starting point for a theological exploration that’s beyond profound– it’s downright revelatory. This is an album about sadness and loneliness, yes, but also about the mysterious providence of God, about the topsy-turvy timetable of the Kingdom of Heaven, about the subversively strengthening effect of weakness. Phillips packs her songs with riddles and jokes, and on the basis of the lyrics alone the album is a gem, but what makes it all stick is that the words are married to impossibly rich melodies– and that drummer Jay Bellerose turns in one of the decade’s standout performances, his punchy percussion sounding almost like a second character in dialogue with the singer, giving the album a texture and a spirit that is unique among singer-songwriter albums.
04. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Abattoir Blues/ The Lyre of Orpheus (2004)
The 00s were a confusing time– morally, politically, culturally. These modern times didn’t offer any convincing cures for this new-millennium malaise, so Nick Cave led his Bad Seeds through the backpages of all manner of myth, both Christian and pagan, and found the moral bearing he needed to make what is, in many ways, the time capsule of the last ten years. These terrifying twin peaks of molten guitar rock, proto-gospel raves, and pastoral balladry find Cave playing the revival preacher, the gallows prophet, and the jaded romantic; you could almost call this a defining political record, but that’s far too simple, for the album isn’t really about politics so much as the far-deeper, far-graver spiritual condition of the times in which we live. Cave doesn’t give up: He appeals to the transforming power of beauty, the transcendence of art, and the redeeming love of the Divine for his beloved; and in so doing, he makes a spiritual rock manifesto for the ages.
03. Over the Rhine
Think back to some of the great double albums in music history, and you might be inclined to say– rightly, I think– that many are great because of their sprawl, their epic reach, their beautiful mess. Not so with Ohio: The two-disc, 90-minute opus from Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist is nothing if not consistent in its vision. Which is not to say that it doesn’t reach far and wide: It’s an album of love songs and divorce songs, protest hymns and wartime prayers. It’s an album about America’s heartland, about marital intimacy, the artist’s life, a nation in decay. And it stands tall– and together– as a masterwork that’s personal and universal at the same time; a song like “Remind Us” is a lament for crises of the heart and of a country at war, and “Show Me” is about a love so white-hot it provides shelter and warmth from storms of all magnitudes. The roots of the album run both deep and wide, into everything from folk and country to gospel and rock, even glimmers of jazz and bubblegum pop, but it’s not a studious survey of America’s musical lineage so much as a personal valentine to the sounds that nurtured the duo. And what to say of the album’s big climax, “Changes Come?” It’s a prayer of beautiful, humbling desperation– a holy revelation that, as an earlier song says, only God can save us now– and its expression of need goes beyond the politics of romance or the War on Terror. It’s a naked confession of human need, and a beautiful affirmation of incomprehensible grace– much like Ohio itself.
02. Bob Dylan
“Love & Theft” (2001)
Turns out he’s not so different, Bob Dylan. In the last decade, he faced mostly the same kinds of problems we all did: Troublesome women. Socioeconomic meltdown. The end of the world. But it’s how he faced those problems that makes Love & Theft masterful: He plays some blues. He cracks some knock-knock jokes, even makes a few puns. He finds solace in folk music. He bids us look up, face our Maker. Those all sound like pretty good ways to handle things, which of course made Love & Theft an indispensable traveling companion, a fiercely funny and soul-shaking cure for modern times. The album warrants a wealth of superlatives– it’s the most vigorous, energetic Dylan album ever, his most complicated lyrics set to his most visceral music; it’s the most mercurial and effortless treasure of American roots music released all decade; it’s the most ass-whuppinest comeback album in history– but what keeps it in perpetual rotation is its cheerfully romantic spirit: Dylan tackles grave matters but takes them in stride, and even the goofiest jokes are heartfelt.
01. Joe Henry
Tiny Voices (2003)
I remember a conversation I had—oh, it must have been a few years ago now—with my friend Hannah. She was going through a difficult season in her life, which eventually turned out late-night soul-baring to the topic of theology. Her final comment of the evening, spoken only halfway sarcastically, was this: “Josh, don’t ever pray to God asking Him to make you a better person. Because He’ll hear you. And He’ll do it. And it will suck.”
I believe that in that brief rejoinder lies the elusive heart of Tiny Voices—my favorite album, no qualifiers necessary. To simplify matters dramatically, it’s a record about a God who is very real, always active, completely dangerous, and prone to helping us in ways we’d rather Him not. And it’s about people who live in a world where the sublime echoes all around them and real love is a potent, redemptive force, all too often exchanged for something easier to deal with. Something that leaves fewer scars.
Tiny Voices helps me see the world for what it is: A dark marvel, a glorious and horrifying place animated by what Henry calls “God’s awful grace.” It helps me to see myself as falling short of the wonder that’s all around me, and to fall to my knees begging to see the world anew—knowing full well that it might cost me dearly.
It is, in short, a dangerous album, and not only in its words. Alas, the indie rock blogs never even gave it a chance, but if they had, how could they not acknowledge that, technically, it’s as edgy and adventurous as anything released in the last ten years. Henry surrounds himself with a cast of renegade musicians from the worlds of rock and jazz, and with them makes music that lives, breathes, and seems to recreate itself every time you play the album. Tiny Voices has become my canon, and it just isn’t fair, because no other album can match up; no other album is quite like it, spontaneous and full of fire.
As ever, Henry commits himself fully to his vision, so much so that it’s just too simple to reduce his influences to mere musicians; his art is just as much informed by the Richard Pryor who inspired his earlier Scar as by the Charlie Parker who would haunt the later Civilians. Here Henry is Dylan and O’Connor; he is Leonard Cohen and Raymond Carver; he is Miles Davis and John the Baptist.
Two of those references are especially dear to me. I’m a long-time devotee of Flannery O’Connor, and have, since the release of Tiny Voices, heard Henry speak of the influence she has had on him. At the time, though, I simply knew that Henry’s appreciation of mystery is distinctly O’Connor-esque; witness his “Flesh and Blood,” a meditation on mystical unions inherent to marriage and the Lord’s Supper that turns dogma on its head in favor of something unnervingly visceral. I knew also that Henry held to O’Connor’s view of grace as something that appears where we least expect it—often in the darkest or bloodiest place imaginable.
And Miles Davis: I swear Henry is trying to do what Davis spent most of his career trying to do, and in many ways Tiny Voices has no clearer precedent than A Tribute to Jack Johnson. This is music that moves to the sounds of the present while having its eyes always cast backward. Henry taps into a well of songcraft that is too deep to be brand new, too alive to be mere revivalism. This is American popular song, gone electric, all wild and wooly.
The songwriting achievements here are too numerous to name, but I’ll note just a few: “Sold” borrows soundtrack cues to astonishing evocative effect, perhaps the most convincing noir of the decade; “Tiny Voices” has its finger on the pulse of myths both true and fictional, and the decade’s richest and most surprising Bible references; “Animal Skin” is a perfectly broken love song, less a song about romance than the cracked façade of the human condition; but if it’s romance you want, there’s always “Lighthouse,” a love song so elegant and pure it took me ages to realize just how simple and profound it really is.
This remains an album that I am drawn to but never fully comfortable with: It shifts constantly so as to evade easy classification or interpretation. But it’s become a part of my life like no other record. Not an easy or a safe record, Tiny Voices is an album that continues to leave a mark on me, at least in part for how bravely it wrestles with all the big ideas that have shaped the decade for me– grace and beauty, love and danger, trouble and peace. It’s a summary, and a beginning, and it will probably always be my favorite record.