When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released
A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin’s fourth recording by just 16 months.
At the 1997 Grammys,
A Few Small Repairs was nominated for “Best Pop Album”, but a year later the hit song, “Sunny Came Home” (released as a single in 1997) went home with both the “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year” awards. Suddenly, Colvin was not only a star but arguably the breakout star of the moment. At least from a Grammy point of view.
The Grammys, of course, are not a reliable barometer of quality. And when Colvin and her producer co-writer Jon Leventhal headed to the stage to get their award, there was one of those Grammy moments: Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Klan seized the stage to protest losing the “Best Rap Album”, making Colvin look mature, uncool, Grammy-ish.
Now, two decades later, A Few Small Repairs still looks like a piece of mature pop — not edgy like Wu-Tang, not zeitgeisty like Alanis, not defiant or hiply smutty like Phair and her Exile in Guyville. The difference, however, is that Colvin’s record now feels more like a pop masterpiece, a record that does more than stand the test of time — it shines brighter with every listen and has risen, or really soared over its competition. It is one of those albums that goes a dozen songs deep without a weak moment. It is one of the records that holds its own against other classics.
A Few Small Repairs was a “break up album”, made while Colvin was living through the tatters of a brief first marriage. It comes out of the gate with its hit song, “Sunny Came Home”, in which the protagonist returns to her home “with a mission”, “a list of names”, and “a vengeance”. During the song’s bridge, a voice encourages Sunny to “strike a match”, burning down her past as an act of defiance and liberation. The tune kills, though, because it blends canny lyric storytelling with music that is gorgeously ambiguous: both pop-sunny and shot through with a minor-key moodiness. It has a funky verse, a pop chorus, and an instrumental hook played on a mandolin.
This sour-sweet bite continues. “Get Out of This House” rocks as Colvin demands that her lover leave, with verses separated by bluesy harmonica, but it’s the bridge that gets you, the bass thumping in double time: “If I see you again it will be in my head at the end of a cloud / If you see me again it will be in your head telling you to get out.” The anger is mediated by a sense of poetry.
But here’s the thing: even if these two opening songs are leavened with ambiguity, they remain songs of anger. So the third song is brilliantly placed. “The Facts About Jimmy” is tender, built on a gentle guitar figure and a set of shimmering Wurlitzer electric piano chords in which the narrator tells the story of Jimmy, a charismatic loser who she just can’t quit. A break-up song, sure (“When you feel you’re lying in a prison cell / It’ll rock you just like thunder”), but she admits, “I used to get drunk to get my spark / And it used to work just fine / It made me wretched but it gave me heart / I miss Jimmy like I miss my wine”. It’s a soft, breathtaking kind of hurt.
The real object of Colvin’s ire, of course, is not the partner who may have wronged her. If it were,
A Few Small Repairs would not have two-decade legs. The agenda here, the thing to be examined and — just maybe — repaired, is herself. And in the best songs here, the narrator gazes at herself. The piano ballad “If I Were Brave” is a beautiful tone poem, no verse-chorus structure but just a circling melody that takes little squirts of variation. The singer rides a train, alone, seeing “happy couples… reminding me of when we got along”. Her escape is leavened with both cynicism about these happy couples (“dreams are what they’ll have when they are gone”) and about herself (“Is it something God left out in my spirit or my flesh?”). But in the end, she points the finger inward, addressing herself: “Did you never do your best? / Would you be saved if you were brave and just tried harder?”
If we are talking about albums of romantic and personal introspection, the most intimidating and serious comparison is to the great album of flight and self-recrimination made by Joni Mitchell,
Hejira. That record, from 1976, recorded Mitchell’s restless movements across the country in the wake of her break-up with drummer John Guerin (the drummer for Tom Scott’s L.A. Express, which at the time was acting as Mitchell’s band, touring Court and Spark and The Hissing of Summer Lawns) and her various romances in 1975 and early 1976. Hejira was a cycle of art songs as much as a collection of pop songs, and we tend to connect it, historically, with Bob Dylan’s similarly focused break-up album from a year earlier, Blood on the Tracks. Both of those landmark recordings of the 1970s set an almost impossibly high bar — they not only contain lyrics that fuse the personal, the philosophical, and the accusatory, but they also have focused sonic palettes that blend folk origins, pop, and more exploratory elements.
A Few Small Repairs comes close to its predecessors lyrically. “You and the Mona Lisa” hints at the lyric ambition of Mitchell’s “Amelia”, for example. Mitchell uses the independent female aviator as a metaphoric comparison for her own restlessness, while Colvin uses DaVinci’s famous painting as a comparison for her lover, enigmatic, alluring, and troubled. Better is Colvin’s pensive self-recrimination, “Trouble”, in which she sings “You need someone to walk with in the dark? / I’m your man” and “You don’t have to drag me down / I descend”. Colvin may be angry, but she sees her self-destruction clearly: “I go to trouble like a light, or like a dare / Trouble is like a friend to me, I know it will always be there”. Both Mitchell and Dylan do this with a kind of genius, and Colvin’s poetry of self-doubt is right there, hard as a pearl, and beautiful too.
For pure bite, Colvin also matches her heroes. Dylan has the bile and fire of “Idiot Wind” (“Idiot wind blowing every time you move your mouth”) but Colvin’s accusation is just as cutting in “I Want It Back”: “You said in life mistakes are many / How come you never admit to any?”. Sure Colvin’s lyrics tend to be less discursively poetic that Dylan’s or Mitchell’s , but check out this pair of verses from “Suicide Alley”:
Sitting naked by the window in the middle of the night
I can see you wearing your halo
If only the daybreak of the dirty streetlight
I know baby wasn’t born to follow you
I wasn’t born, I was spat out at a wall
And nobody even knew my name
The sun hatched me out, cradle and all
On the corner of First and Insane
Musically, Colvin is also playing with folk music conventions, even if these songs are more clearly glossed up in some ways. “Sunny”‘s opening hook is a mandolin lick devised by Colvin’s producer and co-writer Jon Leventhal, who happens to be married to Roseanne Cash (Johnny’s daughter, with whom Leventhal has also done great work). Leventhal plays guitars, keyboards, and bass on the record. It’s notable that Leventhal recently produced and co-wrote William Bell’s 2016 soul killer,
This Is Where I Live. That record won a wrong-genre Grammy in 2017 as “Americana Album of the Year”, a win attributable to Leventhal’s cred in making folk/soul/pop records like A Few Small Repairs even though Bell’s record is pure soul.
Leventhal works a similar magic all over Colvin’s music. “The Facts About Jimmy” is slow and quiet, but the cool “lub-dub” heartbeat in the bass drum gives it soul. The blend of Wurly electric piano and acoustic guitar is a clean kind of hip. The galloping double-time rhythm of “Trouble” animates what is, essentially, a ballad. The blend of acoustic piano, swinging electric bass, and Americana guitar (that shifts into pop strumming that sounds like the band Squeeze) on “Nothin’ on Me” makes Colvin’s defiance a major key anthem of walking out.
Leventhal would be back in the producer’s chair five years later for
Whole New You, an album marked by much more happiness and contentment, and that is an excellent record as well. Despite the shift in sentiment, this 2001 effort works much of the same, astonishing territory. Colvin’s voice is as critical as any sonic choices made by her producer. She can be bright and bell-like at times, but more often she blends breathy punch with a wise-as-whiskey twist. The title track could have been a radio hit in the late ’60s, shimmering and hooky but leavened with the human sound of a woman in her 40s who knew better than to sell you pure optimism.
A Few Small Repairs, however, remains the best record of Colvin’s career. She made it with adult wisdom but in a youthful spirit of discovering her truest voice. Comparing it another album that broke a “folk” artist out to a wider audience — Suzanne Vega’s Solitude Standing, on which Colvin sang background vocals on the hit “Luka” — Colvin’s work stands taller. Vega’s songwriting is also excellent, and she would go on to take some inspiring chances in later recordings, but A Few Small Repairs is better overall and in its particulars, deeper and wider and still fresh after two decades. Every song, one after another after another, is superb. Leventhal’s production sidesteps bad synthesizer sounds, schmaltzy strings, percussion-of-the-moment date-stamping.
If you already own A Few Small Repairs, there are two reasons to spring for the new version. First, if you’re part of the 21st-century vinyl movement, this is your first chance to hear the album on wax. Second, Columbia has added seven new tracks. “Sunny Came Home” and “Get Out of This House” are here a second time in pristine solo/acoustic performances: just Colvin on guitar and voice, putting the tunes across from a radio station studio like the folk singer she never really stopped being. “If I Were Brave” is similar: just Colvin and piano (no subtle string arrangement) recorded live for the Columbia Records Radio Hour — a performance that captures more honest details of the singer’s emotion, her breath, her tiny pauses, her heartbreaking way of holding the last note of the phrase “pick your sorry ass up off the street and go”. “Trouble” and “The Facts About Jimmy” get full-band performances from The Ryman in Nashville.
There’s just one song not from the original album, “Ricochet in Time” from Colvin’s debut, Steady On. It’s another excellent song: a warm melody, a story about movement and growth and the hunt for a real authentic life coming from a young person who can see the bruises coming up ahead.
A Few Small Repairs is, inevitably, about those bruises. And that’s why we can’t forget it even 20 years later.