Lissie Goes It Alone on 'When I'm Alone: The Piano Retrospective'
As the album title suggests, Lissie has stripped down the songs to their essence. It's just her voice and piano. It's like putting a lion in a cage and calling it a cat. She should let herself out.
When I'm Alone: The Piano Retrospective
5 April 2019
Fans of Lissie have always understood there were two distinct sides to her. There was the vibrant and unruly singer who would rev up audiences through her wild energy and emotionalism. And there were the more polished studio productions that employed sound effects and instrumental flourishes to add depth and breadth to her natural talents. No wonder two of her six full-length albums were live recordings as an attempt to bring the power of her as a performer to the album format.
Well, during the past 10 years Lissie's been there and done that, meaning she's toured internationally as a headliner, opened for major stars such as Tom Petty, sung with others like Elton John, been a guest on late-night television programs (and had many of her songs placed in popular TV shows), and received ample radio play. Lissie may not be a household name, but she is well-known enough to live the Los Angeles laid back lifestyle and earn a decent living. Except she turned her back on that, sold her home in Ojai and bought 50 acres in the heart of Iowa. Lissie is originally from the Midwest (Rock Island, IL) and in a sense has returned to her roots.
This makes sense in a way, but not really as her early songs were all about getting out of this place and experiencing the world. At age 36 she's too young to retire. When I'm Alone: The Piano Retrospective (2019) has Lissie looking back. As the album title suggests, she has stripped down the songs to their essence. It's just her voice and piano.
The record contains nine originals and two covers. The selections of her own songs make a sort of sense as the majority here were released as singles and garnered a certain amount of success, but Lissie overlooked some of her best material like "Cuckoo", "I Don't Want to Go to Work", and "Wild West". The songs she chose don't reveal Lissie's range as an artist. They tend to concern interpersonal relationships more than reflection and coming to terms with the world. Lissie's best work, live and on record, always conveyed a rebellious spirit and critiqued those who would try and pigeonhole her. This time it seems as if she is compartmentalizing herself into a particular slot.
And her choice of covers, Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams" and the Dixie Chicks' "Cowboy Take Me Away" make even less sense. Her version of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance", Kid Cudi's "Pursuit of Happiness", and Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" are among her best-known recordings. She should have covered them here. Presumably, the cuts she picked have some personal meaning to her, but the connections between these songs and her self-penned ones are not clear. I am as unqualified as Charles Schulz's Lucy van Pelt to offer psychiatric advice, but as a fellow Hawkeye, I think Lissie's retreat into Iowa may not have been the best thing for her music. As the covers suggest, dreams of loneliness can drive you mad and waiting for someone else to come and set you free is just a fool's fantasy.
Lissie has a powerful voice and sings in a low register that suggests sincerity. She uses the silence between notes as a method of creating emotive spaces. Her piano playing offers rich commentary that adds weight to her lyrics and how she annunciates her feelings. The intimacy of these recordings has much to offer an observant listener. However, it doesn't sound like Lissie's having much fun. The nuances are more sensitive than passionate. Lissie can be a force of nature, but the Lissie here is like putting a lion in a cage and calling it a cat. She should let herself out.