Eliza Gilkyson's canny human faith on display on latest album

September 7, 2018
Eliza Gilkyson.

Eliza Gilkyson
Red House Records

In these whirling times of burning forests, unspeakable human rights violations and stupid White House tweets, it can seem like our minds are being sucked down a numbing vortex, into a voracious black hole — “the centre cannot hold”. 

Could there be light at the end of these darkest of days?  Might we still feel joy and have hope, despite all pessimistic logic?

It might be possible listening to some fine revolutionary words and music — like in veteran Texas/New Mexico folk singer Eliza Gilkyson’s new album, Secularia (her 20th).

As they say, you gotta have heart. And maybe — just maybe — without any evident God at hand, could we still have a wee bit of faith? Some of us old agnostic rebels may admit to occasional bouts of that kind of reckless optimistic feeling, giddy though we may seem to be.

Eliza Gilkyson seems to feel that way, too. Sometimes.

In this, her stunning new (and 20th) album, the beloved singer-songwriter digs into and reworks literary, spiritual and musical traditions as she strives to express the almost inexpressible.

To this end, Gilkyson mines the many-voiced ancient folk tradition and some of her own recorded songs from years past, freshly revisited.  

She gets plenty of musical help in this project, from the likes of Shawn Colvin, the late, great Jimmy LaFave, Kym Warner, Chris Maresh, Warren Hood, Andre Moran, Mike Hardwick, Betty Soo, Don Richmond, Michael Hearne and the Tosca String Quartet of Tracy Seeger, Sara Nelson, Ames Asbell and Leigh Mahoney — to name a few of her musical collaborators.

This album is, in a sense, a concept album. It demands to be listened to, carefully, as a whole, an inter-connected, work of art. That said, each track has its charms.

The musical flow is both varied and seamless. But the true brilliance of this brilliant recording is in Gilkyson’s canny lyrics. They are at the same time conversational and profound.

So, what is the “concept” informing “Secularia”? Not easy to say briefly without slipping into cliché, and clichéd is something this album is not.

Those fans who revelled in the hard-eyed, near-apocalyptic vision of Gilkyson’s 2014 song “The Great Correction” (and its chilling video interpretation by her son Cisco Ryder Gilliland) know that Gilkyson is no cock-eyed sentimental dream-monger. She knows real politics and struggle — and she knows the good folks don’t always win, at least in the short term.

Her opening selection is a song based on the drily witty poem “Solitary Singer”, which was co-written in the 1940s by her grandmother Phoebe Hunter Gilkyson and dad Terry Gilkyson. It was deployed as the theme song for Terry’s slyly subversive night-time folk-music radio show.

It declares: “Dark comes down like a bird in flight/Most good people have gone to rest/But us poor folk who wake at night/When we’re lonely we sing our best …” An insomniac’s anthem, the song ends with the ironic, repeated refrain: “Nobody’s listening.”

The next song, “Lifelines”, (co-written with Bellarosa Castillo) begins full-bore Yeatsian: “The centre cannot hold”. But Eliza does not buy into WB Yeats’s fatalistic, even fascistic, doom-vision. Instead, her song ends with a ray of collective hope: “Everyone must do their part/And hearts like life lines/Will light our way home in the dark/Moving into tomorrow…”

“Conservation”, another song based on a poem by Phoebe Hunter Gilkyson, recalls Percy Shelley’s bleak “Ozymandias” but evolves into a sort of atheist hymn. Declaring, “I have no god, no king or saviour”, it ends with the singer asking that her dead bones be placed “with trees and birds and flowers abounding” in such a way that “those who mourn may be comforted.” What a generous way to contemplate one’s own final coming to rest.

“In the name of the Lord” skewers theocratic (and consumerist) rapacious imperialism.

“Dreamtime” again invokes “The Second Coming” end-times mythos: “Some kind of storm is coming/Some kind of veil about to fall.”

Yet even this grim foreboding is tempered by a guardedly hopeful lullaby of sorts for the coming generations: “Oh when the night comes on like this/I just pray there’ll be some kind of guiding light/When we cross over/ into dreamtime…”

Gilkyson, now a grandmother several times over, still has the courage to sing comfort to her (and our) little ones, despite the looming thunderheads.

“Seculare”, co-written with Mark Andes, is Gilkyson’s song of thanks and praise to the world that despite all its sorrows, and our own shortcomings, gives us children, songs, hope and “the fishes brown and silver”. Truly a fit mantra for a singer who is also a devout catch-and-release fisherwoman.

“Reunion” is a fierce calling-out of a social order which tries to ignore the plight of immigrants and refugees: “See the trembling girls/Hear their desperate cries/On the sickening swells/Look into their eyes…” On another level, this song may be an angry cry from a conscious elder woman witnessing the atrocious sufferings revealed by the #MeToo movement and other no-longer-silent women.

“Sanctuary”, in which Gilkyson duets with gospel singer Sam Butler, is a touching affirmation of “love’s sanctuary”, that place where even we unbelievers may find solace. It is an especially beautiful song among many beauties on this album. “Though my trust is gone and my faith not near/In love’s sanctuary/Thou art with me.”

“Through the Looking Glass” takes us in “majestic silence” on a journey across “dark waters” to where “Beauty beckons like a pot of gold” in a striking re-visioning of John Keats’s romantic joy in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. It is a great upbeat song, and the line about “the great devotion game” surely tempers Eliza’s grimmer view of “The Great Correction” that is undeniably near at hand.

“Emmanuelle”, with its title’s sly gender reversal of one of the male Biblical names of God, is this album’s enthralling prayerful feminist epic, with its rolling march-time and humbly self-referential, self-realisational candor: “A rock, a star, a drunk in a bar … pushing the will like a rock up a hill/Until, until, until … from out of dreams awakening it seems ten thousand years … Emmanuelle?” A woman finding herself, and herselves, at long last. And happy to find love in her own true heart.

Gilkyson and her friend, Jimmy LaFave, the great folk artist who died last year, take us on a joy-ride with the grand old rouser “Down By the Riverside”, with a few telling adjustments to the traditional lyrics: “I would sacrifice my starry crown/Down by the riverside/If I could only tear this building down…” 

It’s a call to rise from a pair of tough peaceful warriors.  And a damned great song to boot.

The album ends with the quiet grace of “Instrument”, a piano and guitar tune whose lyrics seem to be in quest of redemption, however unlikely that may seem in such a fallen world. Yet, Gilkyson sees hope in the rending mercy of nature: “Come strike my final tones/And blow your horn magnificent/Through the hollows of my bones.”

Secularia is Eliza Gilkyson’s masterpiece. It will be played joyfully by doubtful but hopeful wanderers in this wide world long after the singer herself has moved on.

But that will be then, and this is now. It will be a real joy to catch Gilkyson in concert and sing along on these great songs.

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