Some Way Around These Stars
133 · 14 August 97
Beth Nielsen Chapman: Sand and Water
I'm fond of saying that Beth Nielsen Chapman's self-titled 1990 album, her pop debut after a decade of mostly writing country songs for other people and singing backup on their records, is the only album I ever bought after hearing it in a supermarket. This isn't really what happened, but the glib assertion reveals, as glib assertions tend to, some truths that the real story leaves out. In fact, I bought the album after hearing most of it played in a record store while I shopped for something else (old Slayer and Fugazi records, probably), an uncommon but hardly unique occurrence, and only later did I hear it played in the supermarket. But the other way around makes more sense. Sweet, soothing, sentimental and overwhelmingly suburban, Beth Nielsen Chapman would sound much more at home drifting over brightly-lit grocery-store aisles, filled with hurrying mothers and restless children (not the one I heard it in, a 24-hour Star Market populated largely, at three in the morning, by errant college students looking for something to replace the chemicals that a normal human sleep cycle would otherwise provide), than it did hovering, uncertainly, over the shaved heads of beligerent teenagers flipping restlessly through bins of NWA CDs. The clamor of the rest of music at the time (and now, still) seemed fundamentally inimical to me to Beth's graceful, emotional and unapologetically conventional songs, about memories, time, friendship, hopes and regrets. The industry thrives on blasts of intensity, rapaciously consumed; Beth Nielsen Chapman was as incongruous and unmarketable as a posse of deferential skateboarders slamming teacups of warm milk. And so I was a little self-conscious about liking it so much, and the joke was a defense mechanism. I'm not the sort of person that likes the music they play in supermarkets; I'm not so old yet that I grumble about the noisy crap the kids like, and hold out something formulaic and anachronistic as a paradigm they should follow; I don't drive a mini-van and play records like this while I idle in the carpool line. I'm as puzzled as you are by the fact that I own this.
But this isn't entirely true, either. I have lots of Adult Contemporary records. I might have a slightly harder time programming a day of it from my collection than I would a day of punk, or metal, or power-pop, but only just. I love Nanci Griffith, and Del Amitri, and "Little Victories" and "American Pie", and I even own one Bruce Hornsby record, and while I haven't replaced my vinyl copy of Building the Perfect Beast with a CD, neither have I gotten rid of it. Growing older shouldn't be an excuse to turn your back on your childhood, or anybody else's, but you can take in new things without jettisoning the old ones. Truth takes many forms, and Beth's songs were no less honest or perceptive than Tori Amos', or Ian MacKaye's, or Mark Eitzel's. And for me, at least, the honesty was as evident in the music as the words, whatever its genre. I'm too young to associate Grace of My Heart with the Brill Building songwriters who really inspired it, so Beth has become the singer I see behind Illeana Douglas' character. You have to transplant the story to Nashville, and shift it forward a couple decades, but to me the commitment, humility and awe are the same.
Which is why Beth's 1993 follow-up, You Hold the Key, struck me as a crushing disappointment. The essential appeal of her style, to me, was its simplicity and directness, and You Hold the Key, which attempted to transform her into a sleek, Mariah/Whitney-esque diva, completely wrecked the spell. I did not want to hear Beth Nielsen Chapman doing a slinky duet with Paul Carrack. I did not want to see her hiding naked behind a mirror on the cover. The transformation felt crass, calculated and insincere to me, whatever its motivations were in fact, and I hated surrendering to crass, calculated insincerity a voice that had been its antithesis. I try very hard to give each record a chance to succeed on its own terms, rather than trying to force it into another mold, just because it was the one I was expecting, but every once in a while I come across an album that seems to miss its own point so wildly (which isn't technically the same as dishonesty, but isn't necessarily any more palatable, either) that listening to it makes me feel aesthetically nauseous, and I'm forced to turn it off before it destroys my faith in music itself. This could well be premature, and/or unfair; maybe if I dug You Hold the Key, or Mark Eitzel's West, or Richard Thompson's you? me? us? out of whatever box they're still packed in, and put them on now, I'd find that enough of the universe's particles are in different orbits that I'd hear something I didn't hear the first time, and find a way to love them after all. But the idea of playing them again, to find out, is too revolting to seriously contemplate. They are lost to me. Life has too few days, and too many songs I don't wince in anticipation of.
But I give up on artists much less readily than I give up on individual albums, so I bought Sand and Water with the impervious hope that it would find Beth back in human form. The four years since You Hold the Key, I figured, was a period of artistic re-evaluation and re-grouping, time for her to see the error of You Hold the Key's ways, and either find new ways, or relocate the trails that lead through the old ones. "Re-evaluation and re-grouping" turns out to have been correct, but my profoundly inconsequential allergy to her previous album had nothing to do with it: Beth's husband, Ernest, was diagnosed with cancer during Beth's 1993 tour, and died in August, 1994. I don't know anything real about Beth's life, or Ernest's, but if her life resembles the lives of the characters in her songs (and the simplest assumption is that it does), this is the kind of blow from which she might not have recovered. In rock, of course, death is part of the idiom of the form. Courtney survives Kurt (and Yoko survives John, for that matter) in part because crazed fans and lonely shotgun vigils are so firmly in character to begin with. Rock stars are inherently fragile and evanescent. Their planes go down, their tour buses overturn, they OD, they drown while swimming, they're shot in drive-bys. Each loss is tragic, but the pattern is unsurprising. When Kurt shot himself, nobody wailed "Why?", uncomprehendingly. We knew why, all too clearly. We'd been steeling ourselves for his death ever since we met him. Quiet songwriters and their husbands, on the other hand, are supposed to live forever. There is no routine for coping with their deaths, and no pall of inevitability to suppress our urge to question, and so my guess is that spending a year watching one die could easily sap all the energy and tolerance out of you. And either you pour a new, and in some ways stronger, foundation into the space this leaves, or else you collapse.
Musically, much of Beth's new foundation sounds a lot like her old one. Piano, acoustic guitar, understated keyboards and subtle drumming are the main elements of the arrangements, Beth's clear, unaffected voice gliding over it all with a serenity she never lets obtrusive technique interrupt. She hasn't Nanci Griffith's high Texas twang, but they share a similar calm concentration on the words they're singing, and a fondness for stately, unhurried melodies durable enough to serve as either whispered moonlight lullabies or galvanizing Cher-on-a-battleship-deck power-ballads. The melancholy "The Color of Roses" and "No One Knows But You" are just piano and voice, and the atmospheric "Sand and Water", the gentle "Seven Shades of Blue" and the elegiac finale, "Say Goodnight", are all similarly hushed and elegant. Where You Hold the Key tried to blend in soul, sultry r&b and dance urgency, though, Sand and Water sticks closer to Beth's folk and pop roots. The jittery "All the Time in the World" sparkles with pizzicato mandolin and sinuous country guitar licks. The ecstatic "Happy Girl", swirling with deep bass surges, shiny organ cascades, crisply propulsive drums and soaring guitar, is a delirious holdover from the days of Juice Newton's "Queen of Hearts" and Fleetwood Mac's "Second Hand News". The loose, burbling "Heads Up for the Wrecking Ball" hangs on the verge of a square-dance romp. And though "Beyond the Blue", with its pattering hand drums and Hindi final verse, doesn't sound much like anything on Beth Nielsen Chapman, it's a stylistic link to such AC peers as Peter Gabriel, Clannad and Sarah McLachlan, to me, and thus as natural a thing to find here as any of the others. Only the smoky "Fair Enough", with its loop-like drumming and New-Agey gut-string guitar figures, shows the lingering effects of You Hold the Key's digression.
But while the music could be mostly understood as reversion, there's no missing the impact of Ernest's death on the rest of the album. For one thing, there is a lot more collaboration on this record, as if Beth has had as much compassionate help making new music as she's had rebuilding her life (overlapping projects, I suspect). Matt Rollings co-wrote "The Color of Roses", and plays the piano on it. Gary Nicholson co-wrote "Beyond the Blue". Country-pop stalwart Bill Lloyd co-wrote "All the Time in the World", and plays guitar and sings backup on it. Guitarist Dominic Miller and pianist Kevin Savigar helped write and play "Fair Enough". Michael McDonald sings the duet part on "Seven Shades of Blue". Annie Shoes Roboff co-wrote "Happy Girl", and contributes bandoleon (some sort of accordion variant, apparently) to it. Joe Henry co-wrote "Say Goodnight". And Bonnie Raitt plays dobro and slide guitar, and sings, on "Heads Up for the Wrecking Ball".
The extra hands notwithstanding, the album's words and sentiments are all distinctly Beth's. The lyrical genius of Beth Nielsen Chapman, to me, was that Beth was able to invest emotional nuance into the smallest, subtlest observations; here the observations necessarily get a little deeper, but are just as deftly expressed. The first couple verses of "The Color of Roses" read like a song of found love, but when, towards the end, she sings "And in this dream we share, / Let us not miss one kiss", awareness inverts the chronology, and the story becomes a love song in retrospect, the happiness and hope in the beginning of it all the more sharp and awesome for the tragedy they know will come. "Beyond the Blue" is suspended in paradox between the will to stay alive ("Every breath I take...") and the eagerness to die ("...I'm closer to that place"). "All the Time in the World" opens with a carefully rendered scene, watched through a bank window from a traffic jam, of an unknown woman with a weary infant just trying to get through her day, but then suddenly opens its heart wide, and wishes eternity for everybody, awash in the realization that time is more precious than anything you can fill it with. (I particularly like the mild-mannered excess of the last verse: "I'll take the curves, I'll dodge the cops, / I'll jump the ditches / Doing eighty miles an hour / Slamming back into your arms"; sort of like the Blues Brothers car-chase rewritten for a Ford Windstar, open countryside, no smoking and no pursuit.) "Sand and Water" is her reconcilliation with continuing life, and the things, like their son, in which his spirit will live on. "Seven Shades of Blue"'s unexpected "And we made love on the kitchen table / Till the water reached a boil" manages to add sexual passion to the portrait of their relationship without disturbing its domestic wholesomeness at all. "Happy Girl" is the grand release, the song of gathering momentum that signals that the summit is finally behind her, and I adore its concluding acquiescence, "Let the axis twirl", which I take as giving a naturally joyous world leave to stop mourning. "No One Knows But You", a bit of undertow after "Happy Girl", is yearning and uncomforted. Equilibrium mostly returns for the goofy send-off "Heads Up for the Wrecking Ball", but even here the bridge, "High on a shelf inside myself I go. / One day we'll all fly home", is still looking somewhere else. And "Say Goodnight", though structured musically like an epilogue, is actually sung as his song back to her, and her version of his solution, "Say goodnight, not goodbye", shows that she is not trying to learn to live without him, at all, she's just trying to find a way to account for his absence that doesn't involve letting his presence out of her life.
But if I believe, as I think I do, that there are no gods, and there is no afterlife, then why doesn't this bother me? This album should seem essentially misguided, and I shouldn't feel, as I do, like I'm stretched on a rack between heart-wrenching euphoria and helpless dissolution into tears. I shouldn't empathize with these songs. The amazing strength in this album is not self-sufficiency, or an acceptance of meaninglessness, or any other theory of meaning I would endorse, it is the derivation of an ability to continue from the promise that this sadness is finite, and that it is replaced by something afterwards. In her voice, as she sings these songs to him, I do not hear poetic device, I hear the unassailable certainty that he is listening to them, and that she wants him to be proud of her for carrying on, as much with him after his death as she was before it. But if you don't believe that they will be reunited, then the universe has let these songs down. If there is not a plane of existence in which, years from now, Beth will rush into Ernest's arms (or whatever equivalent spirits substitute), then there is no justice in art. Our lives are attempts to find stories threaded through the chaos, like hunters and bears and queens hanging over our heads, and Beth and Ernest's story can properly end only one way: the brightness swallows everything, and just before they disappear she says "I missed you", and he says "You did great". If there are no angels, and he isn't listening after all, then these songs have been deprived of their audience, and will plunge into some silent, hopeless abyss. But I can't let that happen. I love them too much for them to have been merely an appealing dream.
My unwillingness to see them fall unheard, in fact, must be exactly why these songs affect me so deeply. If Ernest is not there to hear them, I must hear them myself, in his stead. If the one audience to whom these songs are perfectly pure and simple doesn't exist, then I, to whom they are complicated and ambiguous, must find something to take the place of his understanding smile. All of us, whoever chooses to hear this album, must pool our little epiphanies together, until we have replaced all the joy lost. Perhaps belief and reality are indistinguishable, or perhaps just telling a story is enough to make it true, or perhaps the secret to overcoming any grief is not to fight against it but to absorb it, turning its strength into your own. "Say goodnight, not goodby" describes my relationship to most things, frankly. All progress is temporary, as are we. So why not let loss be temporary, as well? Sadness is finite. It can fill your life, or it can end as soon as you wish. So I half cry, half-smiling, and try desperately to figure out the difference.