Photo: Scott Newton / Courtesy of artist

Eliza Gilkyson Searches for the Meaning of Life on ‘Secularia’

Eliza Gilkyson's desire to believe in something on Secularia is like someone whistling in the dark (or singing for inner strength when nobody's listening). It allows her to go on.

Eliza Gilkyson
Red House
13 July 2018

What is the meaning of life? Really. Some people find the answer in god, or good deeds, or nature, or work, or love, or family, or music, and so on. Eliza Gilkyson doesn’t know the answer, but she examines all these possibilities and crosses them out one by one. She’d like to believe life has a purpose. Let’s imagine America has begun its great decline and the forces of evil triumph. The accomplishments we admire today become forgotten footnotes about time passed. What we each did, who we loved, who we prayed to, the natural environment we experienced, the art we created, no longer mattered to anyone. Then what’s the purpose of it all; what matters?

Gilkyson opens Secularia with a lovely song with lyrics written by her grandmother Phoebe and music by her father Terry about the role of the artist, “The Solitary Singer”. Gilkyson croons about “singing her best when nobody’s listening”, a metaphor that serves the record well. Life may not have any meaning, but all is not gloomy. As the title song “Secularia “suggests, Gilkyson like most of us has lots to be grateful for: the sun, the moon, the stars, rivers, good luck, children, loved ones, etc. She sings over lightly strummed electric guitars with two angelic female vocalists in harmony behind her. Gilkyson croons that its “beauty that saved me” with a formal dignity. It’s a lovely sentiment, but it rings hollow. Her desire to believe in something is like someone whistling in the dark (or singing for inner strength when nobody’s listening). It allows her to go on, that’s all.

Celebrating life is a fine thing. My advice to you, dear reader, is for you to stop reading this review and find a friend or lover and let the magic of being around another person engulf you. We die alone, but we don’t have to live that way. However, if you are still reading this, you should note that this is not the happiest of records, full of dreary verses such as “serving the systems of / violence and romance / sobbing the sorrow / walking the wheel / hiding the horror”. That doesn’t mean the album is cheerless. However, it can be somber and contemplative.

The one traditional song Gilkyson covers, the spiritual “Down by the Riverside”, is a duet with the late Austinite Jimmy LaFave and who offers ambiguous lyrics about what comes after (“I can’t tell you I’ll be heaven bound”) we die. He knows what happens now, but LaFave’s not coming back to tell us.

That’s a joke—black humor—and that spirit is interwoven through the serious cloth of this album. Gilkyson’s questioning shows the absurdity that not-believing in anything is as foolish as believing in something without proof. On tracks such as “Through the Looking Glass”, “Instrument”, and “Reunion” Gilkyson takes on the role of an artist to make us feel and think deeply about existential questions. She may not know the meaning of life, who does, but she understands that her incomprehension is part and parcel of living.

RATING 7 / 10