Some friendships, though short, have long-standing consequences. For a few months in 1993, I was semi-seeing a lady from Lancaster, who I’d met through the Guardian’s dating service. She ended up being one of only three ‘girlfriends’ that I took to a felltop in the Lakes, and the only one that I didn’t kiss on getting there. Apart from our living at opposite ends of Lancashire, it wasn’t going to work out. But in the early stages, when we were still working that out, we did what everybody did, and exchanged tapes. I don’t know if my offerings ever really sank in that far, but twenty years on, two of the singers on Susan’s tapes remain on my short list of favourites.
The first tape I got had k d lang’s Ingénue on the first side, and this album on the other. lang was big at the time, thanks to the song Constant Craving, on this album. It’s not a bad album, smooth and comforting, but for me it wasn’t anything else, and lang’s voice didn’t seem to hold any great range. Because Ingénue was only 40 minutes long, and Fat City 55 minutes, the final track of the latter was added to side A of the tape, to fill as much time as possible. So I was introduced to Shawn Colvin, of whom I hadn’t previously heard, by the last track of her album, and by an absolutely stunning Grammy nominated track, I Don’t Know Why.
The rest of the album lived up to that promise. Because of the association with lang, I assumed Colvin would be bracketed as country-rock, but that’s an inadequate description, and it doesn’t suit her voice. It was the voice itself that got to me, the cadence of it, the slight breathiness, the range of tones and sounds across which Colvin sung, and the songs supported that voice with an assuredness that was more than impressive. Though this was only her second album, she was already supremely confident in her music (or at least such was the impression it gave, though the reality was somewhat different).
I didn’t have the whole of the album: track ten barely had chance to make itself known before the space on a C90 shut down. So I needed the CD so I could hear the missing song, and so I could hear the album without the run through Ingénue or the interminable wait for the tape to fast forward, and the back cover picture of Ms Colvin in a short, sleeveless dress was a bonus on top of that (she doesn’t look her age now, let alone then, and she’s just under two months younger than I, so I only have to work out how to get to Austin, Texas, and…)
It’s no slight to the rest of Shawn Colvin’s work that Fat City remains my favourite among her albums, and no slight to any of them to say that none match the range of songs that this album boasts, nor the depth. This is gold in the ears.
The album begins with one of Colvin’s most popular songs, Polaroids. It opens with a light, skipping, acoustic beat, leading to a minor pause before Colvin’s voice comes in: Please, no more therapy/Mother take care of me/Piece me together with your needle and thread. The openness of the opener, one of Colvin’s earliest songs, is made more open yet by the knowledge that this song was written on a New York bus, en route to a therapy appointment in a series that was going nowhere.
It lays down a marker. This is not an album, that is not an artist where feelings will be covered up, deflected or set at a safe distance. Colvin isn’t like that. Her autobiography makes clear that she has been a lifelong depressive, for whom music has been the only sole safety net. And it’s this plea for help, which rolls on as an organised stream of consciousness, that opens an album that, paradoxically, is a stronger, more positive experience, courtesy of the prozac which was controlling Colvin’s moods.
There’s no sign of that yet. Polaroids is followed by two cheery, almost rocky songs, that keep far away from the subject of emotions. Both Tennessee and Round of Blues are up in mood. Tennessee calls and offers freedoms, Round of Blues hits the road, literally and metaphorically, with a new life, and the originals bracket a superb cover of Warren Zevon’s Tenderness on the Block, an urban song about a girl making up and going out to meet a boyfriend. Colvin sings with conviction and faith, and backing vocals from the Sub-Dudes on an accapella final chorus repeat the mantra that She’s gonna find True Love.
But it can’t stay that way, and with Monopoly we’re back in the emotional red. Low key, low tempo, a solo acoustic guitar underlaid with a little bass, a little keyboards, a near funereal pace. Colvin sits alone with her guitar. It’s gone bad, and she’s helpless in the face of it, left with only that guitar and the inevitable need to make sense of it in a song, when that’s the last thing she wants to do, the only thing she knows to do. The song just keeps it going, erects a monument to something that’s dead, and she hates that but the hurt won’t let her stop.
Then comes the first of several astonishing moments on this album, astonishing lines. Colvin’s voice, sad, wistful, self-hating, suddenly increases in intensity, in pitch. But right now I’d be bought and sold, she confesses, because it can’t be kept within, just to see your face somewhere. I would sell your sweet sweet soul/for just a touch of your crazy black-gold hair. That’s what I know of as love, she admits, unable to justify or deny herself.
Because this isn’t about love as we know love in songs, the public face, the declaration or the mourning, the glory or the pain. This is love and passion, in a degree that is inseparable, when love and need and want break down both head and heart, when people become a part of each other and begin to unravel the dreadful loneliness of being separate.
And her voice drops its pitch, aware of reality but still stumbling over it, whilst the music slowly advances, unchanged through that momentary glimpse inside upon things for which words are not made. Music, it never goes, she admits, but I told you I hate that shit/And friends say “well, you know/You got a song out of it.” But, I don’t know what else to do, Colvin admits, to herself and us, letting the song play out. She’s indeed got a song out of it, a great song, a terrifyingly naked song. But all she’s got is a song.
Monopoly, or that moment in its middle where Colvin can’t hide from herself, transforms the album. What has come before had been, in its way, an attempt to distract herself. But from here, the tracks build in unending waves of glory.
Things take off literally in the case of Orion in the Sky. Colvin is in love, a love so big and broad that maybe even the emptiness of the Southern hemisphere cannot contain it, so she looks to the skies. Orion is her shelter, her protector, her guardian angel. The song praises him, returning again and again in mythopoeic fashion, calling down aspects upon the head of Colvin and her lover. But the doubt is there all the time: but can he protect us baby/from all the sad things we’ve done?
The music swings, Orion’s tributes raise ever higher, until the cycle breaks loose, and Colvin anxiously sings on, out into the Universe, until at last the fear draws her back to Earth: we are forever tied/still on the run/to the medicine man/for all those sad, sad things we’ve done. The tension flows out, the music winds down, the song ends.
To be followed by Climb On (a Back that’s Strong). Love has prevailed, Colvin is confident, enough so that she can and will offer shelter and support to her lover. We work so hard being tough on our own/but now it’s me, and you. Her back is strong, he need only let go and she will carry them both. The moment he does, the song takes flight. Colvin is looking to heaven, with her man, and with that as her goal will face Armageddon. She will provide such strength that ‘then you can be the woman you need/if you just let me be the man I am’. Roles reverse, two become one in heart, the strength to look outside is supported.
But what of the strength to look inside? The album comes to a peak, in every sense, with Set The Prairie On Fire, and it’s about sex. You don’t need the words to tell you that, you just listen to the organ, slow, sensual, smouldering. Not a person in the world except Booker T. Jones could play like that, and it wraps Colvin and her lover up in an aural soundscape that marries to the words of passion within.
And you’d better be ready for this ride. It’s not raunchy, it’s not dramatic. It’s sex, but it’s that other kind of sex, when heart and soul are involved as much as body, when the boundaries dissolve between me and you, into us, into the inability to distinguish which one of you you are. Colvin’s not shy, she’s not abashed, this is she and him and tonight they’re going to set the prairie on fire. She can’t wait until she gets him in ‘that defenceless position’, feelings ‘burn down to one solitary colour/the velocity of lonely melts us into each other/it’s a song our fingers play/all at once and together/ you can bet we’ve never learned it/but we’ve known it forever.’ Then the song is released as the lovers reach that peak and the words and the music climax, and there’s Booker T’s organ soloing as the song slowly falls away into release. Wow!
Set The Prairie on Fire might be expected to exhaust everyone (it sure drains me!) but Colvin, instead, is full of life, full of energy. In Object of my Affection, she can’t sit still, into the car, driving up the coast in the night, listening to the radio. She’s bubbling: excited and unable to stop: and why? She has a lover: she coyly refers to him as the Object of (her) affection, and he’s not a dream, or a fantasy, and she wants him to come to her. She sings of others who have gone before, sweet Anne of Mercy and Sylvia Plath, who died for love. ‘If we locked up all the girls who died in vain/we could walk on their heads to Hell, and back again.’ But that’s not the fate Colvin expects: (she’s) ‘got the big book/and antidepressants’! At last the message is that ‘you try looking for love/well, I guess it’s true/you don’t look for love/it’s gonna look for you’.
And then, with the end of the album in sight, things change. Kill The Messenger retains the energy, builds upon it with banks of drums, but the words escape into a strange place. Colvin no longer sings of herself but instead talks to her friend Jane. Jane also loves, but is faced by nay-sayers. Colvin understands her situation well, and from the position of one who has passed through, offers advice on standing firm. But at the end, the message is ‘Heed the Message/Kill the Messenger’.
So we come to I Don’t Know Why. It astonishes me that this song’s reputation has not spread further, that it has not become a modern standard (then again, if When You Say Nothing At All hasn’t done so, what chance has anybody got?). Colvin sings beautifully, plaintively, over a sympathetic arrangement of strings, about her love, about how she doesn’t understand why she loves him, but she does. In the end, though, it’s music that matters. If there were no music/then I could not get through. Without her music as the filter for her feelings, she couldn’t understand them. The song makes room for a dreaming guitar solo (an alternate version, on one of the CD singles, replaces this with a solo horn that is almost as effective), before Colvin’s final plea, for understanding as much as the continuation of her feelings, brings us to the end of this enveloping, fascinating, enlivening and utterly brilliant album.
Put it back on again, now!