They used to talk about the difficult third album — a promising debut, a second long player that delivered the goods, then the prospect of following that one up gave many a band the shivers. After all, all your great material, your life’s work to date, had been swallowed up by the first two releases, so the feeling that you were back at the bottom of the creative ladder was an anxiety hardly without substance.
Shawn Colvin’s challenge has not been dissimilar, although Whole New You is actually her sixth outing on Columbia. It’s just that her initial string of recordings earned her mere cult acclaim. It took the Grammy-winning mettle of 1996’s A Few Small Repairs to propel the singer-songwriter into the spotlight and more mainstream acceptance.
So perhaps we can excuse the five-year hiatus between then and now, although her label have, it seems been patient, and unusual strategy in these cut-throat times. Jerry Reed once sang “When you’re hot, you’re hot, when you’re not, you’re not”. Maybe such proverbial simplicities can be set to one side, but Colvin has been away for some time and momentum gained in the mid-1990s may take some regaining.
There are reasons — a second marriage, a first child have marked her recent history. And she confesses that after decades of accumulating the classic profile of the confessional singer, with a picaresque biography stretching from South Dakota, New York, Texas and San Francisco, her latest muse has been the new arrival. She blames, in part, the dream-like quality of many of then new songs — principally co-penned with long-time collaborator John Leventhal — on nocturnal nursery disturbances.
But while the call of the child may have a cutesy appeal, let’s cut to the chase: how well does this fresh batch live up to the previous glories? Well, not that badly. I don’t think this collection has quite the edge of Repairs, yet there are enough sepia portraits of romantic angst, enough evocations of exposed sensitivity, sufficient signs that this mistress of the melancholy will once again win the hearts of earlier subscribers to her work.
Much of what we encounter exhibits a somewhat world-weary bleakness — “Nothing Like You”, “Another Plane Went Down” and “Mr. Levon”, for example — but these are mature visions of an adventuress looking back, and I actually prefer those to the jaunty, upbeat-ness of the Aimee Mann-like “Bound to You”. The work on show is mostly introspective, let’s go naked into the recording studio stuff, and even the packaging is infected by this mood.
The monochrome sleeve insert has a distressed appearance, the song lyrics typed on a battered Corona, and, it appears, crudely photo-copied. The gloss of Grammy-ness is deliberately absent; there appears to be a distinct attempt to locate the singer in a country-fringed netherworld. And the designer’s craft is certainly effective: Colvin’s songs are imbued with a lost and found mystique, and there is that air of the temporary to Leventhal’s production, spare and understated.
Shawn Colvin may have settled down in Austin, but she has no illusions about romantic idealism. “Getting married and having a baby were the most earth-shattering things that ever happened to me…it’s not angst-free; it was terrifically unsettlling in a way I didn’t anticipate,” she reveals. The restless striving that featured in her younger years, remains a motif, actual or metaphorical, in her songs and in her singing, and that characteristic makes this set both emotionally and intellectually engaging.