Grant-Lee Phillips | Lightning, Show Your Stuff | (Yep Roc)
4 1/2 out of five stars
Grant-Lee Phillips has never been short of inspiration. Over the course of a career that stretches back some 33 years, he’s released 16 albums — two with his first band Shiva Burlesque, four with his namesake outfit Grant Lee Buffalo, and ten albums on his own. He’s maintained a remarkable average, putting an effort out every other year, and yet, Phillips seems to have no shortage of inspiration or motivation as far as his ongoing output is concerned. Likewise, his latest offering, the sumptuous yet sublime Lightning, Show Your Stuff, makes it apparent that quantity has never come at the expense of quality.
Nevertheless, this new album does mark a decided change in Phillips’ perspective. Where his last album, Widdershins, detailed the degradation of the American ideal in terms of both practice and perception (“That was me taking the temperature of everything that was going down,” Phillips muses), Lightning, Show Your Stuff shines the light inward to reflect on his own emotions and insecurities as well as all those who struggle for their very survival.
“I want to mix things up,” Phillips surmises. “If I do a harder edged record, I want to do a softer sounding one the next time. The record I did before this one was really more of an outward expression. It was about the things that affect us all in the town square. In this case of this album, I went inward, but I’m willing to bring everyone along.”
Recorded in Los Angeles, the album finds Phillips — who became an L.A. to Nashville transplant seven years ago — surrounded by an A list of superb session players. They include drummer Jay Bellerose, bassist Jennifer Condos, pedal steel player Eric Heywood, and Danny T. Levin, who arranged an array of horns. As a result, the arrangements are as nuanced as the narratives, injecting a kind of antebellum-like atmosphere to such tender tracks as “Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston,” “Leave a Light On” “Drawing the Heart,” and “Mourning Dove.” The songs are thoughtful, the music is memorable, and the overall feel is both reflective and refined.
It is, in short, an album for the ages, and a record that’s representative of Phillips in all his prolific prowess. “It took two and half days to lay down the tracks, another two days to mix it and it was mastered the following weekend,” he recalls. “It happened fast.”
Although unintended at first, the new album also shares some universal emotions that have been brought to bear by the pandemic. Phillips first began to contemplate its composition approximately two years ago, but he acknowledges that its songs really seem to resonate in a much broader way these days. “Some of these songs — ‘Coming To’ and ‘Mourning Dove’ in particular — date back to when I first moved to Nashville in 2013,” he explains. “They were reflective songs and I probably could have added another verse or two and kept going. But at a certain point, I had to pry myself away from them and let them go free into the world. It’s a funny thing when you make art. Sometimes the significance of it and the meaning of it reveals itself over time.”
Although he’s turned the spotlight inward, Phillips still doesn’t negate the need to speak out and confront the challenges that the nation is facing now. There is, he suggests, a kind of compromise that’s needed as far as attitude and activism are concerned. “My feeling is that as crazy as these times are, this moment demands that we remain engaged, vigilant, as well as reflective and open,” he says “That’s the kind of album this is. It’s meant to strike that nerve. We’ll fight our long battles during the day, but we’ll tell our stories by the campfire at night.”
Then again, that’s always been his strength — the ability to create a kind of intimacy and aural imagery that brings the listener in via some cinematic suggestion. “It’s another way to paint a picture,” Phillips suggests. He speaks from experience. In addition to making music, he’s also an artist and a former drama student as well.
“When I was living in California, I felt like I was pulled in 15 different ways,” he reflects. “The opportunity was there to go after film scoring and acting, a lot of the things I found intriguing. But after awhile, I decided to settle down, to concentrate on writing the best song I could, getting out on the road and just sort of narrowing my focus. My visual art was always on the burner and just something I could check in with. When I moved to Nashville, I was so struck by the landscape, and so my art became my refuge when I wasn’t on the road. It’s been good to have that kind of thing because I’d go stir crazy if I wasn’t able to go out and perform. I did go to film school in my late teens though. I thought that was the direction I might want to go into. But I was impatient. I wanted to put a band together ,and so I put that idea aside. I always like to honor those interests, but I also had to find my focus.”
It could be said that given the album’s
cinematic suggestion, Phillips still manages to delve into those different
worlds even now.
“Each song is an opportunity to present a new scene,” he muses. “If this whole thing were a film, it would represent a series of scene changes and present new characters. Some of my favorite scenes are very fleeting, like when a lone horn comes in in the middle of ‘Mourning Dove’ and those little moments when the brass comes in, or Jay strikes something on the drums. I’m just now getting to the point where I can hear it with the objectivity I have when I listen to someone else’s album. It’s hard. You hear it so many times, you start to lose perspective, and that’s when the doubts creep in.”
In truth, he needn’t worry. The new album reflects that array of inspiration which is always key to Phillips’ creativity.
“I feel like my best ideas creep up on
me,” he says. “For example, with the song ‘Sometimes You Wake Up In Charleston,’
I was out on a stroll and it occurred to me that I was in this beautiful
setting that was in fact the cradle of slavery in this country. It was also the
place where there had been this horrible mass shooting at the Emanuel Church
the year before, and I was trying to square all of that — a place with such
beauty and such history, and yet a lot of it very tragic. I took this
photograph that morning, and I thought, ‘I can write this photograph as a song.’
A lot of my songs come to me that way. They’re stimulated by some sort of
The track “Leave the Light On” was also borne from experience. “It’s one I know well,” Phillips suggests. “A lot of us who travel a lot know that sweet feeling of coming home, going through the door and having someone waiting for us. And if they went to bed, they left the light on for us. They could have also left a slice of pie as well I guess.”
One thing that’s especially striking about Phillips’ work is that even after all this time, he continues to set a high bar for himself. Indeed, with each album, he continues to exceed his own standards.
“It comes down to me being driven to up my game,” He suggests. “Others may not have any idea of the inner turmoil that’s driving me, but I have an idea of the things I want to get right the next time that I may have failed to nail before. With every album, I can go through a litany of frustrations. Every single one of them. It’s that perpetual sense of frustration that drives me. So I want to get it right the next time. One of these days I will get it right. It has nothing to do with commercial success or critical success, or anything else. It’s about me feeling found when this record is done. I’ve done this long enough to know that’s a little bit insane, and a lot of it is in my head, but it’s like doing a show. You can do a great show, but tomorrow’s a new day and you’re going to feel different, and you’re going to have to approach it a little differently as well. It just drives me to do a little bit better.”
In the end, Phillips says his goal is to put the full measure of his heart and soul into each and every effort. “I’m always trying to go there, and for me, the greatest payoff is when I feel like I’ve put something on the line and been vulnerable with my work. I realize now that I’m not the only one on the planet that feels a certain way, and that’s something I’m just now beginning to trust.”