The Infinite Jukebox: Shawn Colvin’s ‘Set the Prairie on Fire’

Sometimes, late at night, when the world has gone empty but I’m not yet in sight of sleep, I find myself turning to this song, and playing and replaying it over and over on YouTube. It’s almost seven minutes long and it can repeat for an hour or sometimes more, soothing me, easing tensions I can’t name. Sometimes, I need that desperately.

‘Set the Prairie on Fire’ comes from Shawn Colvin’s second album, Fat City, released in 1991, and it’s the least typical song she’s ever performed. That’s down entirely to its guest artist, the legendary Booker T Jones, on electric organ. and I do not believe that there’s another organ-player in the whole world who could have laid down this slow, smouldering, smooth and absorbing track.

The song is simple. It’s about sex, and when I say sex I mean looking forward with intense anticipation to getting it on with the loved one, or at least the one most seriously being lusted over. Colvin makes no bones about it from the the opening line: it’s night, the moon is full, and she’s gonna cover every inch of him like ink on a paper.

No holding back. The woman knows what she wants and there are no hints and half-statements. I can’t wait till I can get you in that defenceless position, she croons, bending phrases through a passion that’s overwhelming. We’ll set the prairie on fire, she promises, go down to the water, naked and slow. How hard will the wind blow? How far will it go?

Colvin’s guitar strums, Jones’s organ ripples. Colvin is being open, wide open, singing of her lust and what it does to her in terms that at least one former girlfriend would have insisted should not be revealed to men. There is an extraordinary verse: When this feeling burns down to one solitary colour (a synaesthesic moment, her orgasm has overwhelmed her), the velocity of lonely melts us into each other (the sex so intense that the boundaries between bodies blur), it’s a song our fingers play, all at once and together (the boundaries between minds blur), you can bet we’ve never learned this but we’ve known it forever (which is a reminder that sometimes I need, and sometimes I would rather not think of).

And we set the prairie on fire, she repeats, and though you wouldn’t believe the song could go deeper into that moment when man and woman achieve a closeness on every single level that obliterates the idea of being different people, Colvin tops it again, singing directly into the heart of that velvet explosion.

In the cool dusk of horses, through the rusted wires of sleep, with our arms around midnight, we’re heading for release, we go riding in the wind, we go riding in the dark, riding, riding, riding, until it all bursts and her voice soars.

Then there’s nothing left but that guitar strumming, a peaceful, even rhythm, whilst Jones, released in his own manner, noodles on the organ and the sound fades, slowly, very slowly, as the lovers lie there and try to remember which one they are.

It’s pure sex, of that most intense and brilliant kind, that takes you into a place where you can never go, save with that one person, where you can never go without them, nor with anyone else. Couples make these places together: they don’t actually exist on Earth.

At times, as night, when I’m feeling lost and lonely, I play this song over and over, until I am safe to go to sleep. Shawn Colvin didn’t mean for this song to be therapy for me, but it has become so. The times I need it gradually grow fewer, but the Infinite Jukebox houses my need, forever at hand.

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