The singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin is blessed with a wondrous voice – a clear but distinctive, confessional but ringing instrument that lends all her music a signature sound of hip intimacy. However, her best work is less about her performances than about the stories she tells and how she matches them to bracing, unique melodies. Her best record is still 1996’s A Few Small Repairs, which won Grammys and leveraged Colvin’s pop instincts such that she no longer seemed like a folk singer and more like the adult version of a star. That was certainly a grown-up hit record: an album about the bitterness and sadness of going through a divorce and maybe one of the best on that topic since Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.
All Fall Down is another break-up album, but one softened and mediated by time. Colvin is in her mid-fifties, and her response to romantic failure now is less angry and invigorating than it is sad and resigned. Rather than kick her betrayer out of the house, as her narrator did in the rockin’ “Get Out of This House” from ’96, the opening/title track on All Fall Down simply finds the narrator shaking her head at the sad truth that, “The best of ’em wind up / Sweepin’ dirt off the street / And the worst of ’em end up / Right back up on their feet.” Not that “All Fall Down” doesn’t have punch, but it’s a slap that sounds like Colvin wants to give herself for being too naïve.
The blame also goes back to one of Colvin’s protagonists on “Knowing What I Know Now”, which features a soulful arrangement that takes perfect advantage of the production team. The guitarist and mastermind is the great Buddy Miller, who sings the killer low harmony part here. The rest of the core band is Victor Kraus on bass as well as jazz-Americana guitar hero Bill Frisell and the jazz drummer Brian Blade – with the whole shebang recorded down in Nashville. As Colvin sings, “Would I ask a seeing man to go blind? / Would I ask a sane man to lose his mind? / Could I expect you to come back somehow? / Knowing what I know now?”, a metallic-sounding Wurlitzer electric piano also fills the sad, painful space. It’s a brilliant track.
A tragic romance is also chronicled in “Seven Times the Charm”, co-written with not only Colvin’s usual partner Jon Leventhal but also Jakob Dylan. In a lovely dirge in triple meter, Colvin sings about a lover “who had all of the persuasion of a snake on my arm” and “none of the kindness and all of the harm”. These stories are told with a sense of the inevitable playing out, as if each sad heroine ought to have known better. This idea is sung and played most elegantly on “Anne of the Thousand Days”, a modern telling of the Anne Bolyn story. The narrator meets the ex-girlfriend of her “Henry VIII” and knows that her own clock is ticking, causing her to read the boyfriend’s e-mail to sad effect. But the story works so well because it is set against a shimmering orchestration of guitar layers created by Frisell to skin-chilling effect.
Another beautiful waltz is “Change Is On the Way”, co-written with the singer Patty Griffin. Here, Stuart Duncan lays in a droning fiddle, including a lush solo, while the band includes a touch of pedal steel. The lyric reflects a story in the past but then predicts little good for the future either: “Once you held my hand / Wasn’t long I saw you drift like sand / I guess nothing / Nothing stays the same.” One song after another on All Fall Down drags the listener into this vortex of resignation. As lovely as Colvin’s voice and phrasing is, there is little room for triumph or even temporary uplift. If there’s one great tune here, it might be “You’re Not the Same”, co-written with bassist Kraus. Though it’s another song about a false, soured romance, the chorus has a chiming rise to it, with the vocal gaining some bite as Colvin sings “I’m looking through you, baby – you’re not the same.” A short, low statement in electric guitar also gives the song some ballast before the chorus returns. Blade gives the proceeding a sharp, almost military sound on this snare.
Indeed, the other tracks that lift more off the ground are powered by Blade in a similar way. “Fall of Rome” has a stuttering groove that only Blade could create and one that astutely compliments lyrics such as, “Cross the dark distance / And lay down your guns / For Rome it has fallen / And morning has begun.” Similarly, “The Neon Light of the Saints” is about the revival of New Orleans after the flood, and Blade gives the tune a neo-second line groove that is irresistible. When some old-sounding horns make an appearance on the bridge section, you know Colvin has got something going on beyond heartbreak – but not much beyond heartbreak. Which may be a perfectly good thing. Many years into a measured and melodic career, Shawn Colvin is probably at her best in this dark territory. The turns in her melodies are blue and beautiful, and the production here is just about pitch perfect. You get the sense that both Miller and Colvin could make this record in their sleep, but it’s also a record that only they could make: sad and surging in places, wistful, resigned, and wise. Some fans will find All Fall Down too downbeat, and there’s no doubt that the album could use a Paxil. But for its sustained mood, its clarity of vision, its consistently lovely orchestration, and its pungent and specific lyrics, this latest break-up album is strong indeed. It’s where Colvin does her best work, and this is comfortably among it.