Music

'Back Being Blue' Is Alt-Country Singer Kelly Willis' Welcomed Return to Solo Music

Photo courtesy of artist

Back Being Blue is an album of swift country music that mixes Kelly Willis' pop-rockabilly sense with earnest cover tunes.

Back Being Blue
Kelly Willis

Premium / Thirty Tigers

18 May 2018

It's been 11 years since Kelly Willis' last solo release. Known for her brand of alt-country that dutiful utilizes traditional instrumentation, Willis took an indefinite hiatus in 2008. Never idle, during that time she recorded an album with her husband, Bruce Robison. Willis returns with Back Being Blue, the title being an irreverent reference to her departure while announcing that her musical modus operandi remains. Indeed, Back Being Blue is an album of swift country music that mixes in Willis' pop-rockabilly sense with earnest cover tunes.

The album is launched by the blue-eyed soul tinged title track. The alliterative title is reinforced by impassioned instrumentation centered around Geoff Queen's twangy pedal steel guitar. Lyrically the track is reminiscent of Patsy Cline's "She's Got You", as both feature an ousted lover remotely watching her former partner's new relationship unfold. At the same time, Willis' musical timing and vocality remind listeners of Crystal Gayle's woeful "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue". Willis models her singing after Gayle's tendency to extenuate "blue" thereby recreating the sound of crying.

Willis continues to emphasize women's musical contribution with her cover of Skeeter Davis' "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)". In homage to Davis' 1969 country hit, Willis musically affirms the vintage feel. She also maintains the track's cultural context with references to boxer Muhammad Ali's birth name Cassius Clay. As seen with Willis' understanding of Gayle, "I'm a Lover (Not a Fighter)" pays special respect to Davis without Willis imparting her own aesthetic onto the singles. Willis' alt-country laced with pop inflection is missed, and the opportunity to put her own spin on the classics is lost. Although by focusing on pioneering female country stars, Willis honors the individuals who cleared the path to her current musical stage. Perhaps Willis is right though. It is plausible that these classics are absolute, thereby not requiring reinterpretation.

Back Being Blue features gossamer instrumentation creating a lush musical soundscape. "Fool's Paradise's" cynosure is Robison's mandolin, Queen's pedal steel guitar, and Trevor Nealon's piano. Nealon centers the music while his piano trills add snappish energy to the track's laid-back sensibilities. The interplay between Eleanor Whitmore's fiddle and Nealon in "Freewheeling" musically evokes a familiar sense of melancholy. Yet the album isn't emotionally overdrawn. Toe-tapping and head-bobbing are inevitable with "Only You" and "Don't Step Away from Me". "Modern World" returns Willis to her rockabilly roots with visceral danceability. Despite the track's twangy vibe, the lyrics "more more more" echoes Andrea True Connection's disco hit of the same title. Unfortunately, it's the disco track that becomes the earworm.

"What the Heart Doesn't Know" illustrates Willis' stalwart vocal harmony. Even the woeful but poignant pedal steel guitar can't compete with Willis' uncompromising vocal strength. Likewise, "Afternoon's Gone Blind" balances lyrical vulnerability with vocal power. The track first suggests self-doubt and despondency when Willis sings, "Seems to me that every day is a little bit hotter than the other one / Seems to me that every way that I try to get through 'em is the stupidest thing that I've ever done." Yet, with its crystalline tenacity, Willis' voice contradicts the lyrics. The song isn't actually about vacillation, but the frustration over pursuing pointless endeavors and "Wasting away the time / On yesterday's sweeter wine".

"We'll Do It For Love Next Time" revisits the overused theme of youthful reflection when insufficient impulse control is commonplace. The lyrics are cringe-worthy when she sings, "We ran ourselves ragged like two hamsters on a spinning wheel / Nonstop around the clock till we drop no big deal." For most of the album, Willis avoids cliches and faulty metaphors, with this track being the exception. It is important to note, however, "We'll Do It For Love Next Time" is one of the few songs Willis didn't write. Whereas the track's lyrics are its weakness, the delivery is its strength. The lyrics are densely packed with Willis singing words in between beats. Willis' vocal command and innate musicality rescue the track from the drab imagery.

Willis' hiatus seemingly caused bouts of rustiness. Yet her musicality and empowered voice radiate and ultimately outweighs the album's rough areas. Back Being Blue is Willis' welcomed return to the music scene.

7

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