The Medicine Show
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
There has never been any doubt where Melissa Etheridge stood on political, social or, for that matter, socio-political matters. She’s a well-respected proponent of many, including, but not limited to: breast cancer awareness (she’s a survivor), LGBTQ issues and human rights in general. For three decades the veteran singer-songwriter has been a relatively high-profile, outspoken and fearless performer rallying for progressive causes with seemingly no concern about how it may hamper her commercially. That tradition continues on Medicine Show, her 15th studio release.
Etheridge took a well-deserved break from her typically serious approach on 2016’s frisky covers album MEmphis Rock And Soul. But she’s back in full throttle on her first set of originals since 2014 — not coincidently the first she has written with the current administration in office — and she has plenty on her mind.
Etheridge has reconnected with producer John Shanks (Bon Jovi, Chris Isaak) who helmed her 2010 release Fearless Love. He buffs her sound to a tough, radio ready sheen never more blunt than on the opening title track, where she immediately draws her line in the sand with “But we can change this or we can blame this/We are the people and our thoughts can rearrange this,” over thumping rock drums, a wall of guitars, a hooky, fist-raising chorus and enough reverb to swim in. It’s a raw, tough, commercial, often sonically pounding attack that runs through other songs such as the defiant “Love Will Live” (“There’s a lie in these years I’ve wasted on this pain/Things are gonna change/Right now”) and the near heavy metal riffing of “Shaking,” where concern over current events is the cause of her anxiety.
But it’s not all roof-rattling rockers. On the riveting ballad “Here Comes The Pain” Etheridge takes on the opioid crisis without mentioning it by name (“It feels like kissing Jesus/As it melts into your veins”) starting with acoustic strumming and ramping up into a U2-styled anthem with eerie backing singers. The strings that open “I Know You” lead into a moving tune about an argument forcing the singer to reexamine a long term relationship (“I know the heat when our thoughts and our fears collide”). And the closing “The Last Hello” might be the most heartbreaking tune about the Parkland School survivors ever written, especially since she never mentions the location by name (“No child should see what I have seen”).
As you can tell, this is not light listening, nor is it meant to be. Etheridge sings every lyric like it’s her last and you feel that she’s emoting from her heart. But that can get wearing over the album’s 45 minutes. Some of the melodies and production tend to be a bit overwrought and there isn’t much in the way of a lighter touch. But it’s the Melissa Etheridge her fans have come to know and respect. Love her or not, she’s never been less than forthright and honest, and in this politically charged atmosphere that’s something to be proud of.