Rosie Thomas: Only with Laughter Can You Win

Peter Su

Rosie Thomas

Only with Laughter Can You Win

Label: Sub Pop
US Release Date: 2003-09-23
UK Release Date: 2003-09-29

Those who think that Sarah McLachlan sounds pretty enough when heard as background music (which should be a lot of people) but who resent McLachlan's propensity for rewarding close listening by spewing New Age truisms at her audience (Which should -- hopefully -- be everyone) will appreciate Rosie Thomas's affirmations.

Make no mistake, she's Christian, but never stuffily, self-righteously so. In fact, it's her undogmatic faith that provides one of the album's key moments, when Thomas asks how she can tell children who "never follow Christ / That Heaven doesn't hold a place for them? / Oh how? Oh how? Tell me when I'm no better than them". When the pretty dust clears, however, Thomas is still comes out on the side of angelic self-affirmation in a world where most souls seem to be as fractured, spiritual, and quietly conflicted as hers. Intelligently, gracefully, even extremely likably, Thomas chins up to life and death, love and loneliness, and finds comfort in, like lots of singer-songwriters before her, the self-examined life of slow and steady personal growth.

But then there's the fourth track, "Sell All My Things". I was frankly surprised that Thomas had this in her. While many of her songs touch on the ambiguities and contradictions in love, theology, and happiness, "Sell All My Things" is at once broad and specific enough to encompass the complexities of life (or even Life). Without straying from the disarmingly simple language of her other songs, her narrator hear recounts someone at home to sell all her things because she's not coming back, not when "There's nothing there to keep me there, / Just heartache and headache and worries". Instead, she sees herself chasing the horizon to the grand spots of Europe, where "some fella will play the violin and play a song for me".

Critic Stanley Crouch has written that the blues were developed by those who had, in their darkest, loneliest hours, "locked eyes with the stare of human fate, a stare containing all possible joy and sorrow, all feelings of elevation, all the aches of degradation, all combinations of contradiction, every bit of it that fate underlined by the unavoidable facts of decay, dissolution, and death." More than feeling glum, "Sell All My Things", like the blues, is about confronting personal passions with detachment.

Before eyes are rolled at comparing the soul of the blues to a song from an album whose cover seems to be bedecked in silk-screened roses, consider that "Sell All My Things" follows "Red Rover", a schoolgirl's plea (to her dog? to an imaginary playmate? to God?) that her friends don't turn into their quietly desperate parents. Without posturing or drama or much of that pesky self-examination, both songs are balanced exactly on the razor's edge between future and past, hope and regret, happiness and despair. And note how carefully light and shadow in the two songs are balanced and how the two songs are then balanced against each other: in the first, established joy is undermined by a dubious future; in the second, future freedom is built on the ruins of a past that has left nothing to lose. She might not be this effective consistently, but "Sell All My Things" is clearly not a chance alignment of stars and words.

Let the song sink in and its understatement only makes it more powerful. In an album filled with stated contradictions, the most powerful ones are the ones that here go unsaid. Which is also why "Sell All My Things" is more powerful than its "Red Rover" reverse. Like many of the songs here, the latter strays, usually gently, into too much self-consciousness, where the formation of identity and the impact of experiences and emotions becomes something to be overtly mulled over rather than read between the lines. Though she's an admirably concise lyricist, "Red Rover" nonetheless contains the justified-in-context-but-nonetheless-preachy plea to "Let her go / Oh, she's beautiful, if you hold her back she may never know".

Mostly, the contradictions that Thomas deals in are still the contradictions that have pained -- and secretly pleased -- knowingly sensitive souls with instruments since the 1970s. Though narcissism from the likes of Joni Mitchell (from whom the album title is drawn) leaves Thomas's own feeble self-involvement eating dirt, there remains the faint hint at times of someone pleased at finding out what delightful playthings her own emotions make. When that happens, and it happens too often, the album is reduced to mere prettiness, perfect music for self-reflecting -- cup of tea in hand, of course -- at the end of a tiring day.

In theory, I believe that art should do more than simply giving its audience that easy, reassuring feeling. But for those who have no problem with art doing "only" that, they could do much worse than making a home for Rosie Thomas's humane, unsmug optimism. And even if you agree that art should inspire more than a nice, toasty feeling, "Sell All My Things" and "Red Rover" (and "Tell Me How" in its lines about death and God) make a compelling case for this album indeed doing more.

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