Shawn Colvin's 'The Starlighter' Suggests a New Kind of Sincerity
The singer-songwriter's reworking of children's music by Alex Wilder is both simple and sophisticated, offering a renewal of a style of comforting pop that we simply don't hear much any more.
23 Feb 2018
It has been a good few months for "children's music" if you choose to count The Starlighter by Shawn Colvin as such a beast. Colvin recently released a 20th-anniversary edition of her scathing and very-adult masterpiece A Few Small Repairs, a consummate break-up album that was hardly for kids. The Starlighter, however, is a collection of songs from Colvin's childhood, drawn from Lullabies and Night Songs, an album that combined composer Alex Wilder's arrangements with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Just a few months ago, Lisa Loeb — another bell-voiced singer too easily passed over as "middle of the road" — recorded a kids' album made up of great rock era songs such as "Oo-ooh, Child", Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now Is Love", and Brian Wilson's "In My Room". Kids have it good these days, I guess.
Colvin's collection is soothing and sophisticated at once. The arrangements are hip even as they are super-slick. Piano pushes most of the tunes along, but producer Doug Petty mixes in pedal steel, accordion, acoustic guitar, and other folk instruments more than he lays in the strings. It's mellow, sure, but it's children's music — many are literal lullabies — but most are well worthy of your adult attention.
"The Journey" is particularly lovely — a plaintive melody that wanders and curves with enough creativity to make you think of Sondheim. The lyric, about a pair of shoes waiting beside the bed of a child as she sleeps, is such a magical mixture of hope, tenderness, and a bit of sadness too that it feels like a grown-up lament. The arrangement, for solo piano that is gently cushioned by soft brass and winds during an instrumental passage, is transparently gorgeous. Similarly, "Many Million Years Ago" sounds as hip as a Burt Bacharach tune in the way that its melody winds and turns in unusual ways, using a piano arrangement with a quirky bassline complimented by strings but also savvy pedal steel guitar. Sure, it urges you to "Go to sleep / Go to sleep", but it does so with cool harmonic modulations.
Some of the tunes develop more of a groove. "The Huntsman" uses a mandolin, drums, and a Scottish folk momentum to push the tune forward. "Night" is a jaunty swinger built on a hip pattern of brushes against snare with guitar and acoustic bass setting up a swing pattern that Freddie Green from the Count Basie band would appreciate. It's a tune about a cat quietly walking at night, and the music beautifully tells the story along with the lyrics: the pedal steel "meows" just a bit, and the clarinet creeps like a shadow. The arrangement of the classic "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" is given a clipping 12/8 drum pattern that underlies a majestic guitar-based pulse.
Mainly, of course, the music here is gentle and tender. The title track, "The Starlighter", is a gorgeous waltz, a mournful melody that sits above a throbbing bass line that is built out by chords intoned by low brass and then delicate lines played by guitar and xylophone. Colvin's vocal is plush and heartfelt, rising as it must but also sinking back down into the comfort of the strong melody. "The Cuckoo" is a classic, Celtic-sounding folk song that works as a tune for guitar and cello, with Colvin's vocal perfectly suited on the top in a perfect blend of three equal voices.
One of the most interesting arrangements here is "Hush Little Baby", which builds a busy thrum of guitar, piano, marimba, and xylophone the melts away into folk spareness for the familiar words ("If that mockingbird don't sing / Papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring") but a melody for the tune that I've never heard before.
And that is the magic of The Starlighter. It offers comforts, to be sure: this is an album of lullabies and children's songs, a collection that comforts with a kind of familiarity. But it offers that comfort with accompanying sophistication and subtle musical hipness. A generation or two ago, before rock overran the culture with its premium on simplicity or raw authenticity, this was not so uncommon. The pop music of Nat Cole or Frank Sinatra made lots of room for gorgeous "adult" arrangements, ballads, the appeal of the romantic — all done without irony or nostalgia.
What Colvin has done here certainly trades in a certain nostalgia, a nostalgia for the childhood remembered by the very rock generation that banished this kind of music. But it suggests a new kind of sincerity, perhaps. The Starlighter recreates a remembered innocence, but it does so with the tools of whole lifetime: folk directness, sure, but also harmonic complexity, textural interest, strong melody, and the lessons that come from the best music of the last 50 years — touches of jazz, of 1960s pop, of Americana, of country.
That does not make the lyrics nuanced, of course. The biggest message here is: take a nap, kids. Unsubtle, perhaps, but when the music if this fine, why quibble?