A Shawn Colvin Concert

I haven’t been to a gig in years. The last one was The Pierces at Manchester University Union, back in 2014, when they were touring the Creation album, and that was great, though I could have done without the standing bit. Last night, I finally went to my next one, and whilst the venues weren’t a million miles apart, the milieu couldn’t be more different.

Last night I was respectably seated at the Royal Northern College of Music to enjoy an evening of music from Shawn Colvin, for only the second time in the more than quarter-century since I was first introduced to her by a never-really-was girlfriend.

The only other Colvin gig I’d seen was at the Lowry Theatre in Salford, back in 2006 or thereabouts, and that was great. After a couple of songs to introduce her set, Shawn basically threw things open to us: the audience were calling for songs and she was playing them. I requested ‘You and the Mona Lisa’ from the A Few Small Repairs album, and we had a brief exchange at the end: I called ‘Thank you’ from my balcony seat and she replied ‘You’re welcome’ from the stage: Conversations with the Famous no 3.

I wouldn’t have minded the same sort of thing  last night (I would have called for ‘Fall of Rome’ from All Fall Down)

I’d had to get my shift slid forward three hours to attend the concert, so I was a bit worn down when I left at 6.00pm, to catch the 42 bus to the RNCM. The route, through East Didsbury, Didsbury Village, Withington and Wilmslow Road to the University is the great nostalgia bus trip, and on a warm sun teatime, it was a pleasure in itself. I stopped off for a cheap burger meal just south of the University Union and strolled up to the RNCM in good time for the support act, one Robert Vincent.

This was a guy and a guitar, a singer/songwriter and a self-advertised scouser, self-advertising himself as singing miserable songs (he wasn’t wrong: mind you, Colvin is not exactly happy-clappy). He really did nothing for me except make me consult my watch frequently, but he was still no patch on the legendary Josephine, who supported Warren Zevon at the Lowry Theatre back in 2000 and was a source of amusement (afterwards) for my not-yet wife and I: we were practically in the centre of the very front row, almost underneath her nose and thus unable to sneak out, though we nearly fled screaming when she launched into a song entitled ‘Bus of Life’, which she’d written because she just thought the ideas of buses going places and stopping and picking people up and taking them where they want to go was just so incredible, you know?

Next time I go to the RNCM, I think I’ll book myself at least a half day off: eight hours sitting down taking phonecalls was not the best preparation for an evening in those seats and before we were halfway through the set, my backside was nearly radioactive!

This time round, Colvin had decided to be in charge of her own set. As she always does when in Europe, she was touring with just an acoustic guitar and no band, though the guitar was continually going out of tune, requiring extensive re-tuning in between songs and, towards the end of the evening, during songs as well. This was a minor irritant, though with a musical ear like mine, it didn’t matter all that much.

I’m less familiar with the later songs, the post 2000 ones, than I am with those from the Nineties, but I anticipated quite a few even as I couldn’t immediately bring the title to mind. There was quite a mix, with a generous helping of those from the early days: three each from the first two albums, including my favourite, ‘Shotgun down the Avalanche’ from her debut album, Steady On (we got the title track and ‘Diamond in the Rough’ later).

I don’t remember anything from the last two albums, though we did get her version of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Tougher that the Rest’ which she recorded on Uncovered.

When the set ended, Colvin left the stage but was only gone about twenty seconds before returning for the encores we were demanding, another four songs, one of them the only request of the night. For the first of these, she attempted to drag a stool into place, to sit down for the first time, but some problems with the monitors knocked that on the head. But I was concerned at how awkwardly she was moving onstage, and how physically weak she seemed to be: Colvin is only about two months younger than me.

To be honest, once we reached the encores, I was distracted a little by the time, and having to get home by bus, but I was lucky to more or less hop onto a Piccadilly-bound bus as soon as I came out of the door, though I still had a twenty minute wait for a 203 home, and it was practically midnight before I was in.

Given that the online booking was suggesting that the tickets had almost gone, I was surprised and disappointed to see the hall no more than two-thirds full, if that. We made up for it in enthusiasm, and Colvin appreciated our coming out to see her (I called out ‘Any time!’ and got an appreciative grin in my direction). It would be nice to think I’ll get another chance, but I hope it won’t take twelve years until the next.

I’d decorate this post with ‘Fall of Rome’ but for the fact it’s never been uploaded to YouTube, so let’s close with ‘Shotgun down the Avalanche’. So good to hear this one.

Treme: s02 e04 – Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get The Blues?

Her week

Though they’ve otherwise nothing in common, Treme and The Bridge share one characteristic common to great shows, that there is always so much in each episode that you cannot be believe it has lasted only an hour. And that this abundance of event and story has been conveyed to you without once your feeling short-changed: that a scene has been too brief, or underplayed, or made less than clear.

As the episode title makes plain, this week was set in the very immediate run-up to Christmas Day, though for a Brit the perpetual hot blue skies of the south made it impossible to get my head round that idea. The New York scenes might have made that more credible, but since we’re not filming in New York (are we?), these all took place indoors.

This was an episode that felt as if it concentrated upon the music more directly than usual. There was a weirdly funny West Wing-esque open, as Antoine got dragged back to school, interviewed on the fly, did his best to talk himself out of it and still got the job of Assistant Band Director to a school band short of any instrument more musical than castanets.

But Antoine’s heart is in his Soul Apostles. Sonny rehearses on guitar but frankly is no better than adequate, and this Japanese cat blows him out of the water. The Soul Apostles debut at LaDonna’s bar, to great acclaim but the Japanese cat has a gig so Sonny gets a chance, and you can sure tell the difference. Maybe his story will take a turn, as Antoine sends one of his cronies to warn Sonny about blowing his chance, and his reputation, over his drug habit.

In New York, Delmond Lambreaux is listening to old-time New Orleans jazz, over his grlfriend’s disgust. He’s leaning towards making a New Orleans album, and he’s starting to sew an Indian costume, of sorts. He also crosses paths with Janette, but we’ll get back to her story shortly.

The biggest bonus for me was an appearance by Shawn Colvin, playing live and bringing up on stage this wonderful local violinist she’s seen, and wanted to play with. This is, naturally, the lovely Annie T, who adds some superb, sweet tones to a song I’ve never heard Shawn Colvin sing (want, want!). And at the after-party, Shawn introduces Annie to her manager. But Annie is too shy, too unpushy to go for this chance, especially as the guy a) specialises in Austin and b) isn’t as enthusiastic about her as Ms Colvin. Sigh.

There’s a lovely little additional cameo from Annie, near the end, on Xmas day, jumping out of bed with Davis to dress up in robes and tinsel and play him a Xmas solo. Lucky sod.

Ah, and he’s getting back to being annoying is our Davis, unable to cope with the painful traumas of being born white and into a rich family. You see, in his soul he’s really a 22 year old thug n***a and he’s persuading Aunt Mimi to drop $5,000 to set up a label that will basically try to be Def Jam, and you knoooooow how that’sgoing to work.

Elsewhere in our pack, Nelson’s spreading the cream around quite effectively, whilst LaDonna is showing a brave face to Antoine about not letting last week’s attack defeat her, and maybe in time she’ll get back to her old self, but there’ll be no unrealistically fast TV recoveries. LaDonna has been seriously cracked, if not broken, and Khandi Alexander is playing her part superbly.

Toni’s still investigating the increasingly suspicious death of her now-departed client’s son and sneaking her way towards a more clearly defined but still undetailed outline. There’s a few moments of mother-daughter bonding with Sofia, interrupted by a text-message telling Sofia that one of her teachers has committed suicide, the first very veiled threat from the Police about putting the past behind everyone which Toni’s just going to ignore, and Sofia sneaking out to go clubbing with her friends on the Day.

It’s also a quiet, isolated Xmas for Terry Colson, who’s left it too late to post his Xmas presents.

Which leads us back to Janette, in the kitchen at Chef Brulard’s. Our girl is still feeling the strain of the great man’s stares and glares when a special job comes in: critic in the house. This is Alan Kingsman, a real-life critic nobly playing himself. He’s the one who, a week or two earlier, had written a notorious article slamming New Orleans cuisine as, amongst other things, completely passe. Chef keeps looking at Jeanette, it’s freaking her out, he wanders over, sees some fine, left-over herb dustings (?) on the counter. He grinds them into the heel of his hand, holds the resulting spatter up to Jeanette and tells her that this is her mind.

It is the eventual last straw we’ve been expecting but Jeanette’s response is fantastic. She doffs her apron, goes out to the bar and orders an expansive drink which I didn’t recognise, insisting it be made correctly. When it arrives, she tastes it and approves. She then walks over to Kingsman’s table and, having attracted his attention, throws it in his face. Gloriously, Kingsman’s first response, after the splutter, is to complain that this is a Sesurac (?): nobody throws a Sesurac.

So our girl wakes up an Internet hero, but out of a job. Then she gets put on the guest list after bumping into Delmond in a bar watching the game, New Orleans vs New York.

That’s Xmas Eve and Xmas Day Del flies down to N’Awleans to take the grumpy and self-righteous Albert out fora meal that Albert complains about. It takes a joint hit to cool the Big Chief down, which is where we close. Sixty minutes? Time warps around great shows, I tell you.


The late Keith Waterhouse, like all writers, had his favourite words. Chief amongst these was ‘serendipity’: the art of making happy discoveries by chance. Ladies and gentlemen, yesterday, I was serendipitous.

Watching the latest episode of Treme in order to blog it, I had the pleasing bonus of a live performance by Shawn Colvin, dueting with super-violinist Annie T., alias the superb Lucia Micarelli, on a song I thought I hadn’t heard before.

Once home from work, I looked for the song on YouTube, though there was only a 20 second long clip to be seen. At least I knew the song title now, so I googled it, and discovered it was actually from the 2006 These Four Walls album.

In typing her name into Google, the first thing that came up was ‘Uk tour. After checking on ‘I’m Good’, I went back for that. Shawn Colvin is doing a short UK tour, in July. She’s doing only three dates. Two in London. And one at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Fifteen minutes and one registration later I had me a ticket.

Serendipity. I love you.

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.

Spam 3: The American Connection

Apparently, it’s been decided out there in Spamland that I no longer need to be bombarded with detoxification contacts: I am once again considered clean, which is nice to know, having been clean throughout (except for that day the water pressure was horribly low and I couldn’t get a shower before going to work).

Nor, it appears, am I considered to need impossible quantities of Canadian diamonds to hand out to that adoring legion of lovelies that dog my footsteps wherever I go (you must be joking, I still haven’t got up the nerve to ask out the friendly blonde who works until 10.00 pm nearly every night in my local Co-op).

No, what the Spam Brigade has decided that I desperately need, more than anything under the sun, is Home Inspectors in Baltimore, Maryland, or air-conditioning tube experts in Tucson, Arizona.

Sadly, I do not now, nor have I ever lived anywhere in America, nor visited that strange and far away land, though ever since Homicide: Life on the Street a matter of twenty-odd years ago, I have had a hankering to visit the decaying city of Baltimore (it is not a matter of coincidence that this was also the backcloth for the legendary HBO series, The Wire, since both series have their roots in the same David Simon nonfiction book, and I will at some point seek to impress upon you just how wonderful Homicide was). Therefore, having neither property in Baltimore, nor air-conditioning in Tucson, the latest spam wave is, as usual, singularly inappropriate.

Get your algorhythms checked, boys! (or girls). Cheap trips to Austin, Texas, to see the lovely and wonderful Shawn Colvin play live, yes! Then you might be on to something…

The Ones I Rarely Play: Suzy Bogguss “Something up my Sleeve”

When you’ve virtually cut yourself off from music radio, and music television doesn’t seem to exist outside the terminally worthy Later (I discount any MTV derivative on account of my near-total antipathy to modern hand-jive-type music), it can take some strange and indirect paths to discover new artists who interest you.

Suzy Bogguss is a Country singer, and this album dates from 1993, when she was a rising star, blending traditional and contemporary country with a very clear, strong singing voice. Something up my Sleeve was her third successive gold album, and her third to be released in the UK. Twenty years back, I was going through something of  a gentle Country phase, recognising the truism that Gary Trudeau had put into Jimmy Thudpucker’s voice when he said that Country was where melody had gone when it was forced out of Rock.

This was the period in which I also discovered the wonderful Shawn Colvin (who, in two days time, I shall be seeing live for only the second time), who was, at first, being labelled as on the fringe of alt-country. She was never any such thing, but the discovery of her voice was the probable catalyst for me being sent in this direction.

I never got that deep into Country. I avoided absolutely anything that coupled Western into its description (you can only take so much steel guitar) and with very few exceptions (Dwight Yoakum, Lyle Lovett) I reaffirmed that there is something about the male Country singer’s voice that sets my teeth on edge. But the ladies whose work lay at the contemporary end, such as Mary-Chapin Carpenter, provided enjoyable listening for a couple of years.

Bogguss wasn’t a Carpenter, or a Nanci Griffith, a writer of thoughtful, intriguing songs: she was just a good, straightforward, very honest singer, equally adept at forceful songs with big, rousing choruses, and sweet, but not simpering ballads. There are good examples of both on this set: the album makes it mark instantly with the storming ‘Diamonds and Tears’, a natural hit single that wasnever released as one. Bogguss’s own, rueful ‘Hey Cinderella’, about the less than stellar aftermath of romance, has become one of her signature songs, and there are a half dozen other, forthright, sincere and self-confident examples, many of them co-written by Bogguss.

The subject, primarily, is love, and loyalty, with the underlying theme of unfulfillment and betrayal. ‘Just Like the Weather’ and ‘No Green Eyes’ follow the pattern set by the opening track, rousing, open, whilst elsewhere Bogguss shows the smoothness of her voice on slower tracks like ‘You Never Will’, and ‘Take it like a Man’, the latter of which is a beautiful plea for love to be returned.

The album’s only real disappointments are what would have been the closing tracks on each side of a vynil version: first a cover version of ‘Take it to the limits’, the Eagles’ song: immaculately performed but oh so tedious the material: lastly, the closing track, the title song, which is marred by being a duet with someone called Billy Dean, who is a male Country singer who is not Lovett ot Yoakum and whose voice therefore… oh dear.

Truthfully, there’s probably not a lot to distinguish Suzy Bogguss and this album from dozens of others of that perticular time: it’s just the one that I happened upon, and happened to like, and which had enough strong songs for me to keep when my Country phase evaporated and I got rid of her earlier albums. There is one other factor about Bogguss, though, that assisted in persuading me to hold on to this CD, and it ties back in to how I came to find it in the first place.

My then-beloved had gone with friends to see a band they recommended: IIRC, the Invisible Girls. They’d been supported by a solo singer who had impressed them enough to buy a four track tape of her songs after the gig. Mary had borrowed it, loved it and played it to me. I’d copied it, without writing down the track names, nor memorising the artist – who was actually Susie Hugg, late of the Katydids. Later, my memory unsure of the artist’s name, I went hunting for any records by her which, in pre-Internet days, primarily meant frequent trips to my local second hand record shop, Sifters (yes, the Sifters, of Oasis fame).

It was there that I saw this particular CD. The name wasn’t the same, though it was the closest I ever found, but it was the cover that pulled me up, because Ms Bogguss (who is older than she looks, being only thirteen months younger than me, though looking infinitely better, which would ut her in her late-thirties at the time) was the spitting image of one of my friends, the lovely Fliss (who I secretly fancied, as did all of us who knew her).

It’s not exactly the sort of basis on which to choose a new album to listen to, although I’ve successfully used the same principle again, but I was intrigued to hear this CD and in the end, thanks to Sifters’ ‘pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap’ philosophy (and the knowledge that I could always trade it back again later, as I did many times over with experiments), I bought this, and enjoyed it.

Like I said, sometimes you have to go round the houses to find something that excites you.

Shawn Colvin – ‘Fat City’

Fat City

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!