Sam Phillips: “Cameras in the Sky”

I always feel like each new Sam Phillips album is a puzzle– not in the sense that the music is unduly complex or that it flaunts its own cleverness, but in the sense that each individual part is something to be chewed on, savored, and, in the end, understood in its big-picture context. Her new one is called Cameras in the Sky, and it may be the most difficult yet to fully piece together– if only because she led up to it with several months’ worth of clues, which turn out to be in some ways misleading, or, at the very least, a bit incomplete.

Cameras will probably always be remembered as the “Long Play album,” the capstone to her year-long music subscription service. It’s the culmination of a feverish burst of creativity that also produced five uniformly excellent EPs, and, as a summation of all that came before it, it’s a rousing finale– though not necessarily the one I expected. In truth, I’m more comfortable calling is a summary of her career more broadly than of the Long Play enterprise specifically. I hear echoes in this music of Don’t Do Anything and A Boot and a Shoe; what echoes I hear of the Long Play EPs, however, are fairly subtle and oblique. The record feels, at times, like a wink– a sly acknowledgment that this probably isn’t the Long Play capper we were waiting for.

But I’m not complaining. The more I listen, the more I believe that anything less would have been a cheat. What we could have ended up with was a series of scraps, a song here that hearkened to the old-timey vibe of Old Tin Pan, a song there that recalled the pure pop whimsy of Magic for Everybody; a continuation, perhaps, of the EPs’ ongoing fascination with a more standards-based singing style, or a climax to the story lines about the singer’s faith or her divorce which were woven through the previous Long Play installments. What we have instead is a collection that builds on the themes and obsessions of the Long Play EPs less directly, that inverts their thematic concerns into language a little less explicit and ultimately, I think, more rewarding. What we get, I meant to say, is a capital-A Album– not a collection of holdovers, but very much a thing unto itself, with a thematic through-line and recurring symbols that make it as complete and fully-formed as any Sam Phillips album to date.

This is all despite the fact that it ends with “So Glad You’re Hear,” a song that also rounded out the first EP, Hypnotists in Paris. This new version is, on paper, not too distinct from the original– it’s another Section Quartet collaboration– but the arrangement is different, altered, however slightly, to both fit the tone and content of Cameras more precisely while also providing a nice full-circle gesture for this whole Long Play adventure. Aside from that, the closest this record comes to replicating any particular sound or feel of the EPs is “Leap Back to Earth,” a dreamy sort of classic pop song in the Richard Hawley vein, not entirely unlike the Magic for Everybody track “Always Merry and Bright.” Phillips recorded herself and all of her musicians live, in the same room, all centered around a single microphone, and, in terms of pure sound, it’s the best thing she’s ever done: Jay Bellerose plays hand percussion, Phillips sings both lead and harmony, and the whole thing is just utterly sublime.

Speaking of which: A reader responded to one of my Long Play EP reviews and wondered aloud as to whether Phillips will ever again work with an outside producer; the name Daniel Lanois came up as a potential collaborator, and I myself have made no secret of my desire to hear a Phillips/Joe Henry team-up. For now, though, my suspicion is that she is simply having too much fun producing her own work– being in full control of the finished product, after so many years of working with T-Bone Burnett— to relinquish things just yet. You can hear her pulling in influences from her past– “Little White Feet” recalls some of Don’t Do Anything‘s experiments in electricity, “Throw Yourself Away” points back to the snap and pop of A Boot and a Shoe‘s bass-and-drums interplay– and she revels in the sheer sensuality of sound itself; “When I’m a Camera” is a build-up of piano and guitar and percussion that could almost pass for a Spoon song. But the most radical song here is “Hide Space,” which uses the studio as an instrument the way no Sam Phillips song ever has before, convincingly layering the electric guitar and throbbing percussion until it becomes something that celebrates the sleek experimentalism of modern rock. Songs like these feel like the natural payoff of the entire Long Play endeavor, not because they recall specific moments from the EPs, but because they betray a newfound confidence in the studio, as well as a never-hotter creative streak.

In truth, though, I would care little for an album of Sam Phillips studio mastery if she couldn’t still work her magic in short, simple pop songs, and the writing in these ten songs is superb across the board; nothing feels like an EP holdover, and indeed, most of the material here wouldn’t quite fit on any of the EPs anyway. The second song in the bunch, “Broken Circle,” is one of those pitch-perfect pop gems that she cranks out with such seeming ease, sounding for all the world like it could have been a long lost Beatles jam; it’s the latest in a line of Phillips classics that includes “Love is Everywhere I Go” and “Love Changes Everything,” and while the circular harmonies are intoxicating, what makes the song really sing is the presence of the Section Quartet, here presented in a totally different setting (and more of a supplemental, though no less of an invaluable role) than their work on Hypnotists in Paris or Old Tin Pan. Once again, she is building something here; the Long Play EPs are a foundation, of sorts, but Cameras is a brave leap forward.

I think my favorite puzzle piece, though, is the opening song, “Tell Me,” which clocks in at one minute exactly but is no mere prelude or palette cleanser; it is, rather, as essential to the fabric of the album as anything else here, a fully-formed pop song that happens to be very brief but is nevertheless complete, paying tribute to Phillips’ rather remarkable gifts of economy and precision. It’s got a great hook and one of her best, most playfully riddlesome lyrics; it’s a lover’s plea– perhaps to one Divine– that speaks to mystery and grace– and a need to start anew: “Tell me it’s all in my heart, not my head/ Tell me you’ve forgotten everything I’ve said.”

Indeed, a sense of wrestling with mystery informs every song here, and not just in the way “Little White Feet” grapples with death and eternity, but also how the image of the camera recurs, again and again, and speaks to a physical reality– a document of cold, hard “truth” that is both unerringly factual, yet also incomplete– for the camera cannot document those truths that remain unseen. The title track has the haunting melody of a lullaby, almost, and a sad lyric about satellite surveillance that can guide our steps to “anywhere but you.” The “you” could, again, be any number of people or things, though I’m inclined to suspect that the object here is still a Divine one.

That this track is followed with a song called “When I’m a Camera” indicates both the level of complexity in this record and also the different turns Phillips takes with her images and ideas; meanwhile, Long Play subscribers can speculate as to just how “So Glad You’re Here” closes things out. I’ll simply say that I think it’s fitting, in ways that I can’t entirely articulate yet, but I think I mostly love the heartfelt, personal nature of the song– a perfect finale to this bravura album, and indeed, to this whole, boundlessly rewarding project. The ten songs here are intimate and playful and profound, and in ways that none of the other Long Play music has been, exactly; its impact, then, is somewhat unexpected, but ultimately better than anything we might have hoped for.

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