When I was young I used to believe that Led Zeppelin line about “There’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Now that I am older I have come to learn we are all on the same road headed to the same place: death. It’s a dark notion. Does it really matter how one lives if all that waits is darkness? These are night thoughts, the kind Eliza Gilkyson sings and writes about on her 20th release, The Nocturne Diaries. Her songs concern senseless brutality, such as the mind of kid who plans to blow up his school and kill fellow students, or the girl who’s a victim of sexual abuse at home. The details are important, but Gilkyson also addresses the essential meaningless of it all, when metaphorically we don’t have enough “Midnight Oil” to last the night.
That said, in many ways The Nocturnal Diaries is a happy album. If this is all there is, why not just dance and sing? The categorical imperative is to enjoy life as if there is no afterlife. So while the darkness of “No Tomorrow” is sung with in a plain voice with minimal accompaniment, it is also a song of love. And while Gilkyson sings of destruction on “The Ark”, with a lighthearted air, we all know that Biblical narrative ends with a dove and the promise of a future.
Much of the album’s charms, and there are many, can be found in Gilkyson’s delivery. She turns the poet William Stafford’s lines (set to music by John Gorka) about a field where no battle ever happened (“Where No Monument Stands”) into a lyrical folk song. She makes the words sound old-fashioned and familiar by singing them without ornamentation. After all, Gilkyson celebrates a place where there have been no acts of heroism. It’s a place where the grass grows thickly and the sky shines above. The performance reiterates the message.
And while Gilkyson mocks the notion of a “World Without End” as propaganda to keep us in line, you can tell she still wants to believe that life does not end with one’s final breath. Who can blame her for wanting something more than vultures and coyotes feeding on carrion? But while her tone is hopeful, she doesn’t ignore the reality of the material world and its limits. She is fearless and fearful at the same time, as the way she sings and the words she croons contradict each other in a Whitmanian manner. She too contains multitudes.
Gilkyson co-produced the disc with her son Cisco Ryder, who also sings harmony on a few cuts, including one with Gilkyson’s daughter Delia Castillo on an old folk song recorded by her father in the ’50s, “Fast Freight”. It’s a spooky song about settling down. The album ends appropriately with a paean to home and perhaps its most optimistic cut. “All Right Here” suggests that nothing matters except what’s in the heart. That’s all the living can say. When one wakes in the night trembling at the meaningless of it all, there is consolation in the fact that one is still alive and can feel love.