When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2016, many of us wondered what Philip Roth thought about it. Literary intellectuals have proclaimed Roth as the greatest living American writer, one of the best this country has ever produced, but he’s never been awarded the Nobel for his achievements. Roth has been known to be tetchy. Did the now 84-year-old wordsmith piss and moan that the young 76-year-old whipper snatcher snatched up the prize with verse put to music instead of the printed page? More importantly, was it good for the Jews? That’s a joke I hope these two venerable authors would hopefully understand and appreciate.
So, what does this young shiksa, okay maybe not so young but not so old either, have to say about the affair? Amy Rigby broaches the subject on the very first song of her new record, The Old Guys. The track takes the form of an email, “From [email protected] to [email protected]“. For Rigby, Roth understands his time has passed. He’s philosophical about the whole thing. This conceit pervades many of the other 11 self-penned songs on the record. Rigby writes with the wisdom of age, or at least from the lessons experience has taught her. One day you are champ, the next you’re a tramp.
The self-reflexivity of the lyrics makes them personal. When Rigby sings in the first person, the listener presumes she’s honest. Who knows if the facts are true—they have the ring of truth with maybe some artistic embellishment. When she sings about “Playing Pittsburgh”, her old hometown that she couldn’t wait to leave, you can feel her desire for freedom. It’s unclear if things happened just the way she said or if she still has those feelings about the town. It’s a blues number. It’s also funny. Consider this two-line verse about the Steeltown’s most famous artist: “Andy Warhol’s dead and in the ground / It’s the only way they could get him back to town.” Rigby has a dark sense of humor and compares herself to Carrie before the blood spills down on her.
The album was produced by Rigby’s husband, Wreckless Eric. He keeps the sound a bit fuzzy—even dirty—to add a street authenticity to the disc. When there is a spotless quiet, it’s usually to announce that an abrasive instrumental noise is coming. And when Rigby delivers lines about being evil, Eric has her do it sweetly (at least at first). “In my mind, I’m Nucky Thompson. In my mind, I’m Tony Soprano. In my mind, I’m WALTER WHITE”, Rigby croons before shouting out her conclusion followed by a minute of instrumental clamor full of feedback.
Rigby has a sweet voice. She may not have a great vocal range, but she makes up for it through her expressive phrasing. Rigby never strains to reach a note or hold her breath unless she is singing a line where the narrator would be straining for something or clenching for support. There is a conversational quality to the disc as a whole. She may never have won a Super Bowl ring like the heroes of her birthplace. Her life and career may have had its ups and downs. But like The Old Guys of her title song, she’s still here and says thanks for that.