Taylor Swift has a new album out. It’s called “Folklore”. Laura Snapes in The Guardian gave it five stars and the headline is “Bombastic Pop Makes Way For Emotional Acuity”. I had to confirm what acuity meant and in this context, I think it means “intelligence.” It’s interesting. Peter and I discussed the album at length yesterday in his beautiful garden overlooking The South Downs. He likes the album and I don’t. It may be that I’ve dismissed it too soon and need to give it more of a listen. I think it’s very well produced, the playing is good and she sings well. The lyrics are interesting and are often describing heartache and misunderstanding which are the staples of any good pop song. It’s interesting that the headline in The Guardian mentions emotion because I think the reason I didn’t especially like the album is because I felt no emotional resonance with her voice. The only track I liked was “Exile” and that’s because Justin Vernon sings a lot of the song in a deep rich baritone and he’s got a fantastic voice. I felt at the time that it was like listening to a sanitised Nanci Griffith, so I thought I’d dig out “Little Love Affairs” and listen to it again, not having done so for more than ten years I guess.
Nanci Griffith was at the forefront of the “new country” movement of the mid Eighties along with Lyle Lovett although she herself preferred the term “folkabilly”. She has released eighteen albums along with two live albums. Some of the best concerts that Roo and I went to when we first met were given by Nanci Griffith. I especially remember a concert at The Cambridge Corn Exchange where we standing up near the front and she had a ten piece band with her playing a mixture of tender love songs and hard rocking country tunes. I guess it’s a bit ridiculous to compare Taylor Swift and Nanci Griffith. One is a well regarded country singer/songwriter and one a world famous pop star but I don’t really see the slight musical difference is significant. Nanci Griffith should have sold millions and had singles dominating the charts. In my opinion.
After a few failed attempts at any meaningful relationship with a girl while I was at Royal Holloway College, I lay dormant for more than ten years until an English teacher at the school where I was working decided she was interested in me. She found my utter naivety hard to fathom and, in fact, it was an unwitting tease for her. Nothing much ever happened apart from nearly disgracing ourselves on a school trip to France although after an evening in a pub with her, I did once go into school still drunk from the night before, taught a lesson and had to drive home. Drive home twenty miles, that is. I can still remember the two mini pork pies I ate to sober myself up. (Something else I’m not proud of – the driving, not the pork pies). As I said, nothing much happened and thankfully, we lost touch. I always felt she was the John The Baptist figure before I met Roo two years later. I think she helped to wake me up. I mention this because I once gave her a copy of “Little Love Affairs”. I said I was naïve – we weren’t in love and we were not having an affair but I’m guessing I confused her even more by giving her this record.
There are eleven songs on this record and Side One is perfect. It’s another of those perfectly sequenced sides of a record – the obvious comparison is Side One of “Moondance” by Van Morrison. “Anyone Can Be Somebody’s Fool” starts with a pedal steel guitar which introduces Nanci Griffith’s very sweet voice which may not be to everybody’s taste. I love it. She has great versatility and is able to switch from vulnerability to assertive within a line, depending on the meaning of the lyrics. When she sings “Anybody can be somebody’s fool”, she sounds wise and knowledgeable but when she follows that with “just look at me…I once was a fool for you”, she sounds more tender, vulnerable and regretful.
“I Knew Love” is a sad song and, lyrically, it is a follow up to the last song. She has lost love but harks back to the days when she felt it. “I knew love when it was more than just a word”. It’s a moving, sad and beautiful song, written by Roger Brown who has written songs for Barbara Streisand, Tammy Wynette and Willie Nelson amongst many others.
“Never Mind” was released as a single in a failed attempt to widen her audience. It is written by Harlan Howard who wrote hundreds of songs which were covered by well known country artists. After the low key “I Knew Love” this is more medium tempo. In the song, Nanci is interested in a guy but feels that the feelings are not reciprocated so…. never mind. “Before this night is through, I’d better say ‘I love you’ or I’m gonna always wish that I had”. It’s a perfect pop song, not too twee in a country sort of way – just a song about ordinary feelings.
“Love Wore A Halo (Before The war)” is more rollicking with a singalong chorus. The song is written by Nanci Griffith and in it, she has bought a hotel that was previously used as a brothel. This is a good country song and is nothing like Taylor Swift!
“So Long Ago” is another exquisite love song written by Nanci Griffith. She was in love with a schoolboy sweetheart but her father didn’t approve and had sent her to a school in Baton Rouge. By the time she returned, he had gone to fight in a war and when she next saw him, he ignored her. She is remembering all this many years in the future. It’s lovely.
….but not as lovely as “Gulf Coast Highway” which is utterly delightful. It’s sung with Mac McAnally who is yet another well regarded singer/songwriter/producer. The song is about an older couple who own a house by Highway 90 and tend their blue bonnets, the state flower of Texas. “This is the only place on earth that blue bonnets grow”; Pete and I saw huge numbers of them as we drove along Highway 90 between San Antonio and El Paso.
Side Two is also very good and consists of five songs including a duet with the great John Stewart on “Sweet Dreams Will Come”.
Emotional resonance. A phrase that’s easy to write and hard to define. I’ll keep waiting to feel it.