[13 July 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
At 58 years old, and 15 albums along, folksinger Eliza Gilkyson is producing the best material of her career. Beautiful World, her extraordinary follow-up to 2005’s equally masterful Paradise Hotel, is a study in what musicians can accomplish with eyes open and hearts aware.
Although burning with rage at the devastating course her native United States has taken these past years, Gilkyson refuses to let it push her to dejection. And so, while Beautiful World is in every way a protest album, and at every turn coloured by anger, frustration, and ire, it is never anything less than reassuring, even hopeful. The shiny title serves as a guiding principle here—it’s got dark out, she tells us, but if you look for it, you can still see the light.
From the gorgeous pop of “Emerald Street” and “Dream Lover” to the spooky shimmer of “Rare Bird” and “Wildewood Spring”, Gilkyson (whose father wrote the “Bare Necessities” song from The Jungle Book, which has nothing to do with anything, but how awesome a trivia question is that?) demonstrates why she has risen to the ranks of the very best of the best in the folk music game. Her single malted voice, caught in the fence between Lucinda Williams and Sheryl Crow, has rarely sounded better—there is weariness, wisdom, whisky, and grace in her delivery. It works perfectly on the generally straight-ahead stuff here, lifting simple arrangements, and lighting the stage around her little narratives.
Right from the top, Gilkyson establishes her approach. In what seems to be merely a silly love song about skipping home along sunlit pavement while whistling a happy tune (“all because I’m in love”), the chorus reminds us what’s at stake here. “The whole world’s going up in smoke”, she sings. “I’m just trying to keep my heart wide open”. And open it is—to love, to radiance, to elegance, to beauty. Every song here reflects that sense of flowers pushing through the garbage, of splendor amid the gathering gloom. The music, almost uniformly upbeat (and exquisitely produced by Mark Hallman), helps to carry this lesson home. Indeed, to my ears, the only misstep here is the slow, creepy title track, which seems more funereal than celebratory.
With excellent sidemen and women (including her brother Tony, former guitarist for the late, great, X) pushing the songs everywhere they need to go, Beautiful World should become a benchmark record for contemporary folk. Displaying humour, wit, and a winning charm (especially on the faux-jazz of the closer “Unsustainable”), Gilkyson commands our attention. Listen.
“They got their god / They got their guns / They got their army for the chosen one”, she sings on “The Great Correction”, both the best track on this record and arguably of her long career. Limning the worst aspects of the Bush-led GOP with broad strokes, she takes comfort in the belief that soon enough it must come to a kind of end. “We’ll all be burned in the same setting sun”, she reminds us, “when the great correction comes”.
Easily among the best records I’ve heard this year. Highly recommended.