It’s not the hurt, / It’s what you build around it.
—Lynn Miles, “Trying Not to be So Sad”
Lynn Miles’s Love Sweet Love is glorious. The singer’s voice is like crushed velvet in sonic form. It breaks and cracks along measured lines, yet in so silky-smooth a manner as to compel the listener to curl up in her sadness, because it’s just so warm there.
Miles is part of that great Canadian collective of brilliant women musicians who have never really broken through internationally. Jann Arden and Chantal Kreviazuk are in there, too, though those singers are at least somewhat recognizable thanks to the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack, and Arden’s massive “Insensitive” from too many years back. Mostly, though, these women remain tragically undiscovered outside of Canada, at least in any mainstream sense. They’re hardly unknown; they’re just not the worldwide stars they should be.
Then again, maybe they like it that way. Their fans often do. Miles, like Kreviazuk, Arden to a fair extent, as well as US artists like Kristen Vigard and Maria McKee, are somewhat secret treasures to be pulled out when it’s dark and lonely and there’s no one else in the world who understands you like they do. And there’s the fun side of feeling like the only person in the world who knows them, when, like Rob Gordon did with the Beta Band, you can throw their CDs on during a dinner party and instantly have five people wanting copies.
Still, I hope some cool film director snags a Lynn Miles track and tears open an Aimee Mann-shaped hole in her career because more people need to experience Love Sweet Love. It’s her best record yet, filled with the same emotional control in her lyrics and performance that made her Slightly Haunted (1996) great and Unravel (2002) even better. As with those previous albums (and 1999’s Night in a Strange Town), Miles’s songs are ruminations on the meaning of partnership. True, most of the songs are downbeat in tone, giving Miles so much melancholy around which to wrap her wondrous voice. At the same time, there’s strength in her lyrics that presents the singer as awake and aware. This is despondency with a purpose.
“Eight hour drive on a two lane blacktop, / Nobody loves me today. / Three in the morning, hard scrabble country, / Went and pushed everybody away.” This is “8 Hour Drive”, perhaps the best example of Miles’s desire to accept responsibility for her responses and reactions, and to work at finding the lessons within. In this case, it’s a hard one to learn: “I need a drink, / I need a bed, / I need a stronger resolve.” The same driving theme and neediness appears on “Night Drive”: “I’m taking a night drive, / I think I’m losing my nerve, / On every single straightaway, / On every slinky curve, / I need somebody to take the wheel, / Navigate for a while, / Tell me how brave I’ve been, / And try to make me smile.”
All this need comes together in resigned casualness. “Night Drive” ends with “There’s always ... somebody in my way”, while “8 Hour” closes on a realization that a lover lied: “I need a future, / And a heart that ain’t broken, / ‘Cause you never loved me at all.” These conclusions might seem dismissive, but they’re just the opposite. Miles’s casualness is never flip, and it’s never bitterly expressed. Her resistance to those things is precisely what gives her songs strength. It’s odd to think of such depressiveness as strong, but what else is there when it’s so consistent? If you’ve been so low down you’re doing the all-night-drive, coffee and donuts at truck stops en route to Valley Forge (or somewhere outside Ottawa, as the case may be) can make a girl feel like her own personal Colossus.
Miles knows this, and uses it to shape a worn but wise narrative on the album with each song tied to the next by that building of strength through disappointment and regret. “Flames of Love” opens the record (brilliantly, actually—this is hit waiting to happen ... where are you cool director?!) with a caution to the wind tale of diving into romance. She sings: “There’s nothing in your heart right now, / You have not invited in, / So take a look, lose the net, / Let history begin.” And what follows is a document of that history, from the flames of fun to those other kinds of flames, when everything falls off track.
The final song does present some hope, though in Miles’s ever-present resigned manner: “Quarters in the jukebox, Nat King Cole, / Feed me love and whisky and fill me ‘til I’m whole, / Grace me with compassion and a cleaner slate, / Then wrap me with the blessing of a drunken state.” Only Miles could make so heartbreaking an image seem so utterly joyous.
It’s refreshing, like it was on Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs, (someone Miles is often compared to), to hear a female artist revealing her frailties but refusing to use them as a basis for reflections on love-imposed misery. Miles grips her infatuations and regrets and creates stirring poetry that evokes not the horrors that put you in the car out on the turnpike, but the epiphanies of recognizing personal limits and electing to thrust oneself back into devastating love, because dammit, that’s what it’s all about.