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”.
Yet, might there just be light at the end of these darkest of days? Might we still feel joy and have hope, despite all pessimistic logic, at times of brilliant sunset or after making sweet love? Or when watching children play? Or in rare moments of successful resistance and tentative victory, like at a rally with those brave Parkland students or when a brilliant woman candidate wins over a tired political hack?
Or perhaps after hearing some wise and fiery words and music-- like in this album, “Secularia” by Eliza Gilkyson? As they say, ya gotta have heart. And maybe-- just maybe--even without any evident god at hand, we still can have at least 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 twentieth) album, “Secularia”, the beloved Texas/New Mexico singer- songwriter Eliza Gilkyson digs into and reworks literary and spiritual (and musical) traditions in striving to express the almost inexpressible. The voices she echoes and summons up in this gallant task include not only the visionary poets W. B. Yeats (“The Second Coming”) and Percy Shelley (“Ozymandias”) but the late feminist philosopher Mary Daly (Beyond God the Father) and her own songwriter father Terry Gilkyson with his mother, archeologist/ poet Phoebe Underwood (Hunter) Gilkyson. Eliza also mines the many-voiced ancient folk tradition itself and some of her own recorded songs from years past, freshly revisited.
Eliza 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. And the entire album is informed by the deft production and keen musical taste of Eliza’s son, Cisco Ryder Gilliland.
This album is in a sense a concept album, and it demands to be listened to, carefully, as a whole, an inter-connected, complete work of art. That said, each track has its own validity, and its individual charms. The musical flow is both varied and seamless, to my ears. But the true brilliance of this brilliant recording is in Eliza Gilkyson’s canny lyrics. They are at the same time conversational and profound. No easy accomplishment.
So, what is the “concept” informing “Secularia”? Not all that easy to say in a sentence or two without slipping into cliché. And this album is most definitely NOT cliched or glib. To call it a “spiritual” work risks slander, for “Secularia” is no pile of New- Agey mush. Quite the contrary. Those fans who reveled in the hard-eyed, near-apocalyptic vision of Eliza Gilkyson’s 2014 song “The Great Correction” (and its chilling video interpretation by Cisco Ryder Gilliiland) know that Ms. Gilkyson is no cock- eyed sentimental dream-monger. She knows real politics and struggle and she knows that the good folks don’t always win, at least in the short term. (Joan Baez is one such fan, who had the good sense to cover “The Great Correction” on her own recent politically-tinged album.)
No, like Yeats’s stern passing horseman, Eliza Gilkyson can “cast a cold eye on life, on death”. Even, perhaps, on her own singing. Her opening selection on “Secularia” is a song based on the drily witty poem “Solitary Singer” which was co-written in the 1940s by her granny Phoebe Hunter Gilkyson and her dad Terry Gilkyson. It was deployed as the theme song for Terry’s slyly subversive night-time folk-music radio show. It goes like this: “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, more like darker William Blake than cheery “Kumbaya Milord”, I would say. The song ends with the ironic, repeated refrain: “Nobody’s listening.” Indeed.
The next song, “Lifelines”, (co-written with Bellarosa Castillo) begins full-bore Yeatsian: “The center cannot hold”. But Eliza does not buy into 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 Shelley’s bleak “Ozymandias” but evolves into a sort of atheist hymn, if there can be such—“I have no god, no king or savior”—which 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 consumrist) rapacious imperialism. Listen up, Mike Pence, Netanyahu and Ayatollah What’s- Iz- Name! “We watch the Empire’s epic fall/On shiny hand-held screens/The rapture of the buy and sell/The faithful at the wishing well . . . “ Razor sharp righteous rage against the machinations of all pious male war marketeers!
“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 . . . “ Eliza, 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 Eliza Gilkyson’s song of thanks and praise to the world which 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 Me Too Movement and other no-longer-silent women.
“Sanctuary”, in which Eliza 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.” I doubt any deity is being invoked here. Rather, this is a praise song to worldly human love. What more do we truly need, after all?
“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-realizational 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.
Eliza and her friend, the late great Jimmy LaFave, 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!
“Secularia” 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, Eliza sees hope in the rending mercy of nature: “Come strike my final tones/And blow your horn magnificent/Through the hollows of my bones.” Dem bones dem bones gonna somehow rise again, no doubt!
“Secularia” is Eliza Gilkyson’s masterpiece. These songs will be heard and sung joyfully by hopeful wanderers in this wide world at their campfire gatherings years from now. But that will be then, and this is now. Catch Eliza herself in concert and sing along with her on these entrancing "secular hymns".