Five years have passed since Shawn Colvin last served up a full-length album. 2001’s Whole New You crept under the radar of most listeners, though not because of poor quality, just a lazy record company. For a woman who snagged Grammys in 1998 for Record of the Year and Song of the Year (both for “Sunny Came Home”), it was surprising that Colvin nearly disappeared in the ensuing years. Call it the Grammy curse (Christopher Cross, anyone?). Blame a fickle industry whose artists have to churn out album after album, make videos, and cross-market their music with the most popular brands to even dent the 100,000 sales mark. Maybe Colvin tired of sustaining the grind that ensures mainstream success. Colvin may not have “brand equity” but she does have “artistic integrity.” The latter, in my opinion, is more honorable, though it may not equal monstrous records sales. In 2006, the landscape of how music is sold and experienced is constantly a-changin’. In this year of ring tones and a la carte download services, Ms. Colvin has a new label, Nonesuch, for her new (and not half-bad) album, These Four Walls.
Shawn Colvin also has an opportunity to reinvigorate her fan base and even attract a new audience with These Four Walls. The opening track, “Fill Me Up”, could be the key to this coup. It successfully serves the purpose of an opening track: to hook the listener with a strong tune. It’s the most radio-ready of all the 13 songs on These Four Walls and the best place to (re)familiarize yourself with the strengths of Colvin’s singing and songwriting.
What should you know about the remaining 12 songs? They’re all produced by Colvin’s longtime partner-in-crime, John Leventhal, whose instinct finds the most appropriate musical accompaniment for Colvin’s characters. The symbiotic relationship between singer and producer makes for compulsive listening on a pair of tracks. “Tuff Kid”, a tune where picking up a guitar symbolizes small town childhood rebellion, is served well by a rollicking, guitar and fiddle-driven arrangement. “Summer Dress”, which slows the pace down a few notches, explores a different kind of rebellion: one against the self. “I’m gonna go / Where the lights are bright / Where sacred secrets / Sail like kites”, sings Colvin to the mysterious “Marianne”, a figure who is less an actual person and more the voice of reason inside Colvin’s head.
“Summer Dress”, like many songs on These Four Walls, takes a couple of listens to appreciate but eventually rings familiar in your ears. “Cinnamon Road”, which follows “Summer Dress”, is another such track. Fellow inveterate folk-rockers Marc Cohn and Patty Griffin join Colvin on harmonies. You can imagine a sea of heads swaying amidst an enraptured audience as Colvin warns “All the money in the world / Is never gonna let you go”.
These Four Wallsis not without its flaws, though. Colvin is an engaging storyteller but, at times, her voice is not the strongest instrument to impart those stories. Cohn and Griffin add needed muscle on “Cinnamon Road”, as does Teddy Thompson on the wistful “Let It Slide”. The strained breathiness of Colvin’s voice becomes tiresome after 13 tracks. A cover of the Bee Gees’ “Words”, which ends the album, is as weak a track as “Fill Me Up” is strong. (“That Don’t Worry Me Now”, the twelfth tune, would have closed the album just fine.) The fragility in her voice actually uncovers the strengths in Barry Gibb’s 35-year-old performance. Otherwise, Colvin’s voice is perfectly suited for the roots-rock idiom. It conveys intimacy, longing, and regret, which are the stock and trade of the compositions on These Four Walls.
These Four Wallsis best experienced in quiet, solitary moments; the music here is more appropriate for a long drive, not your next dinner party. Give your undivided attention or you might miss subtleties like the saxophone that blows ever so quietly on “I’m Gone”, the suspenseful pause mid-way though “So Good to See You”, or one of the most beautiful lines on the entire album: “I’ll stoke the fire / Of this cool December / Until I see you again”. (You’ll appreciate the line more if you discover the song on which it appears yourself!)
A glut of singer-songwriters are vying for attention in 2006, but it would be a shame to forget an artist whose two-decade career has likely inspired a flock of imitators. Rather than rendering These Four Walls superfluous, however flawed it may be, it should be embraced by more than Colvin’s devout fan base.