[27 May 2009]
In 2009, with Lilith Fair seemingly a part of ancient history, the craft and canon of female singer-songwriters is easy to take for granted. This perspective makes it easy to forget the women that were part of the movement since before it was a movement. Michelle Shocked’s The Texas Campfire Tapes originally appeared in 1986—four years before Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records—when Shocked had no idea that she would ever have a website, much less that its front page would feature a picture of her with the first black president.
23 years have passed since that release, and now Shocked has recorded her 13th album, Soul of My Soul, the third album released on her own Mighty Sound label. The biggest constant of each album is what is arguably Shocked’s winningest quality: A sincerity that always breeds intimacy, whether it’s dispersed by rage-fueled rock or confessional ballads. On Soul of My Soul, Shocked attempts not only to maintain her integrity, but “to jettison rage without losing the ability to feel strong feelings.”
Among these strong feelings is, surprisingly, love. The 47 year-old is in love like a teenager, and she’s not afraid to show it. The object of her affection, visual artist David Willardson, inspires many of the songs on Soul of My Soul. But rather than use her happy love to relegate her songs to the land of ponies and glittery unicorns, Shocked treats the romance as one of many situations which inspire strong emotion. She aptly introduces this new element of her music on the album opener, “Love’s Song”, in which she proclaims “love’s song was never in my key” but ends with the realization that “love’s song is singing me”. Such lyrics would quickly get soggy in the wrong musical context, but “Love’s Song” is a triumphant and catchy rocker that rises above sentimentality.
The rock comes more to the forefront of songs like “Waterproof”, featuring Shocked riffing on jaded sentiments in lines like “the heart’s a four-chambered washing machine”. The song ends in sweaty, grungy chaos and Shocked’s confident “Your love so soft, warm and tender / Washes over me / Love was designed to be / Waterproof”. “Heart to Heart” is another love song saved only by the hard-edged sincerity of Shocked’s delivery, though a songwriter of her caliber can do much better than “Heart to heart / Hand in hand / Eye to eye / Face to face / We’ll find the grace / That’s ours alone / Two minds meeting / Two hearts beating as one”. The ultimate love song on Soul of My Soul is the album’s closer, which begins with a recording of Shocked calling Willardson and telling him that she’s going to sing a song for him. That direct address infuses the song with rarified adult passion and the tenderness that can only come from such fire. When Shocked breaks into tears midway through the song, it’s impossible not to wish her the same happiness one would wish a close friend.
Shocked’s emotional current still runs both ways, though, and Soul of My Soul‘s other half is comprised of the straight-shooting political songs for which she is known. “Other People” is a somber breakup song between a woman and her country: “And when the neighbors all began to complain / You yell at me and tell me it’s my treachery’s to blame / I gave you my trust, but I’m taking back the same / For the things you are doing in our name”. The disappointment in a nation’s complacence gets turned up on “Ballad of the Battle of the Ballot and the Bullet Part I: Ugly Americans”. “Oh how we love our denial, a comfort to cover up the shame / But the truth is standing on trial and I’ve got proof that we’re all to blame”, Shocked pronounces before confessing “I’m singing this because I am your Ugly American”.
As any adult knows, love and anger are anything but opposites of one another. Whether directed to a man or to a country, it is the strength of one emotion that makes the other possible. Nobody knows this better than Michelle Shocked, and she combines the two things that rouse her passions with relentless rock and a delivery that is always earnest but never naïve.