It takes more than “balls”, as Cook used to sing, to get through life. Being tough is not enough.
Elizabeth Cook has had it rough for the past five years. There’s no need for details here. A listener should be able to judge the quality of a person’s music without knowing his or her backstory. The music needs to express it all. Judging by the 11 tracks on her latest album, Exodus of Venus, Cook has transformed her troubles into the blues. Since she’s steeped in country, it is tempting to label this record of which she wrote or co-wrote all the material “country blues”, but that suggests something else. This is blues and country.
The closest equivalent that comes to mind is Emmylou Harris. Whether she covers a rock song, Bruce Springsteen, one by English folkie Sandy Denny, or even a Beatles cut, the song is country. Cook, like Harris (whose voice Cook has more than a passing resemblance to), just sounds as if the music comes straight from the soul, which lies at the root of country, soul, blues, or any other form.
No doubt some of this is also due to her talented back-up players, including bassist Willie Weeks, drummer Matt Chamberlain and lap steel guitarist Jesse Aycock. Guitarist Dexter Green produced the record.
There aren’t many happy moments on Exodus of Venus, but what would one expect from titles such as “Dyin’”, “Slow Pain”, “Methadone Blues” and “Broke Down in London on the M25”. The songs offer the solace of the this too has passed/this too will pass, the future lies ahead. That’s not much consolation to living in a world of death, illness, addiction, and other serious troubles. It takes more than “balls”, as Cook used to sing, to get through life. Being tough is not enough.
The thing is, Cook doesn’t know what saved her either. She just survived. It wasn’t God, or music, or love that rescued her -- although she doesn’t knock ‘em; she just managed to keep going. On the title song she declares, “There’s no below / There’s no above / There are a few places to find love”, and “Let’s part the waters / Let’s wall the seas / Let’s laugh in the face of modern disease”. Cook’s advice: drink alcohol now, find forgiveness later -- but it’s clear she’s being ironic and probably memoiristic as her partying past is no secret. In other words, she’s learned her lesson; she hasn’t really learned anything except life is hard.
But Cook still has compassion. The most empathetic song on the album is “Tabitha Tuder’s Mother”, an homage to a Nashville woman whose 13-year-old daughter vanished on the way to the school bus more than a dozen years ago. It’s not clear elsewhere on the record if Cook believes in God, but she asks one to pray here. The sadness of the situation commands no other response.
Patty Loveless makes a guest appearance here, on “Straightjacket Love”, a bluegrass-style rave up that lets the two shift the gears from quiet acoustic harmonies to putting the pedal to the medal and singing in overdrive to capture the manic mentality of the narrator. The singers make their point: being wrapped up in love means everything else suffers, but it’s worth it. One might approach the record in the same way. Cook’s mostly melancholy music contains rough diamonds whose brilliance needs to be brought out in the cutting.