The Indigo Girls feel like old friends to me now. Within weeks of their 1988 debut, I was listening to them, and I’ve gotten every album they’ve released since. I’ve chased down bootlegs, collected their pre-Epic recordings, and faithfully fetched songs from soundtracks, tribute albums, benefit albums, and live albums. I’ve seen them live more than 20 times. The first time I played my guitar for Laura, it was an Indigo Girls song. Friends sang “The Power Of Two” at our wedding. They’ve been the soundtrack for countless road trips, evenings with friends, and hundreds of ordinary days and nights, sweetened a bit by braided harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, deep emotion.
So now when they release something new, it’s like getting together with people I’ve known most of my life. Somehow we just pick up where we left off. Yeah, of course it’s one way. And yeah, I know all about the difference between a public presentation and the private reality. I know they share what they choose to share, and I know it’s not always about them — heck, some of the time they even distinctly write in character, like “Cold Beer And Remote Control” or “Sister”. They may be writing in character most of the time, albeit less distinctly. I understand that songs aren’t diary entries, that there’s always projection involved, that their lyrics are often quite oblique to begin with. I know I don’t know them, not really. I know all that, and I don’t care. I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about feelings. And how it feels is like we’re catching up.
So what’s going on with Amy and Emily these days? Well, based on One Lost Day, here’s what:
At this point in her life, Emily is doing a lot of looking back, a lot of evaluating. It seems like no accident that the cover of the album depicts her gazing into a car’s side mirror. Sometimes that rear view takes the form of pleasant reminiscing, as in “Elizabeth”, in which she thinks back on a long-lost friend. Pushing against the grain of today’s commonplace Facebook-driven reunions, she explicitly rejects the notion of reconnection: “I don’t want to look you up, I’m pretty sure it’s just enough / That I remember you fondly.”
Sometimes the recollection feels more painful, more suffused with regret, as in “Alberta,” whose lyrics give the album its title. Where “Elizabeth” recalls joy and carries that into the present, “Alberta” is more fraught — “And as hard as I try I just can’t let it lie / I get the feeling you haven’t quite made it home.” Still, she makes it clear that she’s not wallowing: “Can’t call it sorry, can’t call it sad / Maybe just the same as how a song can take you back / More like that.”
That lyric sums up the tone of most Emily songs on One Lost Day. The songs take her back to a breakup in “Southern California Is Your Girlfriend,” but not with anger: “You just had your plans and they didn’t include me.” Similarly, in “Learned It On Me,” she’s solicited for the kind of reunion she’s avoiding in “Elizabeth.” An ex wants to thank her for how much she learned in the course of her relationship with Emily, because she got all the dysfunction out of her system and now is happy, happy, happy. Not that her ex’s happiness does Emily much good — “I guess I should be happy I’m the course that set you free / I just wish you hadn’t learned it on me.” Even then, she faces the memory with equanimity: “It’s just me and it’s just you / And it’s just the way it goes, and now that book is closed.”
Some memories reach further back, as in “Findlay, Ohio 1968”. Emily’s grandmother really did live in Findlay, and the song is about her memories, but some of the reflections she shares could be from any childhood anywhere in America. The distant outcast girl, the wanderer boy next door, vague impressions of other kids’ household nightmares, station wagon wheels slapping on the turnpike. The Ohio 1968 setting allows Emily to express that strange quality memories can have, the innocence of not knowing what’s coming next, in light of the fuller experience of long life — “In two years time, Ohio would be up in flames” as unarmed college students are mowed down by National Guard rifles at Kent State.
Emily’s songs bookend the album, and while “Elizabeth” is probably her happiest tune in this collection, she also finds a measure of peace in the closer, “Come A Long Way.” As in the others, she’s looking back, but this time it’s a reflection on how much she herself has grown: “All my schemes drowned at the seams / Have left me fine in my own skin.” She’s also come to terms with her religious faith, a faith she’s struggled with in the past, in songs like “Trouble” and “Philosophy of Loss.” “It’s got your name on it” is the recurring verse Amy sings behind Emily’s words, “My name, my shame, my home, everything I own,” and in the liner notes thank-yous Emily makes it clear: “God, it’s got your name on it.”
Amy seems pretty happy too, for the most part, though happiness with somebody like Amy is always complicated. She encapsulates that truth beautifully and powerfully in one of the album’s best songs, “Happy In The Sorrow Key.” Over a stirring rock and roll riff, she lays out a travelogue, to England, to Singapore, and to Kingdom Come as she imagines it, each one a spiritual experience of vastness, eternity, divinity. And each time she returns to the contradiction that defines her: “I’m happy in the sorrow key.” It’s a feeling I can relate to myself — somehow the aching, haunting quality of minor key music satisfies my soul in a way that regular do-re-mi can’t match. Amy wouldn’t be Amy without that sense of yearning — it’s what makes her who she is, and she’s happy as she is.
That doesn’t mean her neighbors are doing that well, though. Oh, no indeed. Amy lives in rural Georgia, and she’s been writing about her experiences there for over a decade now. For instance, in 2004’s “Tether”: “I kicked up the dirt, and I said to my neighbor / ‘We keep making it worse, we keep getting it wrong’ / He tucked in his shirt, he stood a little bit straighter / He said ‘We need a few less words dear, we need a few more guns.'” The theme has continued through a variety of songs, such as “Dirt And Dead Ends”, “Three County Highway”, and the excellent “Rural Faggot” from her 2005 solo album Prom. One Lost Day has a couple more entries in the country tragedy list. “Spread The Pain Around” shows a deeply dysfunctional relationship, the man trapped in his stoicism and alcoholism as the woman struggles to escape but can never quite bring herself to leave. Meanwhile, “Fishtails” tenderly observes a Georgia kid with shreds of innocence trailing, as friends and family lock into familiar grooves of drinking, domestic violence, and desperation.
Speaking of songs that call back to Amy’s solo work, “Olympia Inn” feels like the sequel to “Bus Bus,” from 2008’s Didn’t It Feel Kinder. In “Bus Bus” she’s on that tour bus, feeling lonely, hoping her partner will call, hoping nobody dies while she’s out there. She wonders if she’s pushing her luck, but she’s still hoping to keep the connection. In “Olympia Inn,” things have taken a turn for the worse. She’s on the bus still, or again, but no longer looking forward to that phone call: “She’s gonna call me when she’s down, just to knock me around.” Her stronger connection now is to her driver Johnny, as she pours out her sorrows to him, adding her tears to the pouring rain. She has no regrets about the life she’s chosen — “Oh Johnny, I’ve sung with pleasure / It’s a good life, there is no measure” — but she knows the price she’s paid too, and hopes for a little comfort when it hurts the most. “Hey Johnny, in the morning / When you wake me, call me ‘darling'”.
She also finds solace in activism, and this time around her cause is racial strife, as spelled out in “The Rise Of The Black Messiah.” Sometimes I find Amy’s political songs a bit tiring, kind of like a friend railing on about some justice campaign I don’t feel too attached to. Sure, I support the project, but it can be a bit laborious to hear about repeatedly. This time, though, I’d just finished reading a bunch of slave narratives and postbellum Southern history, as research for my most recent Watchmen article, so I felt a little closer to the subject matter. Even so, I tend to prefer her more personal stuff. She’s passionate, she’s articulate, and I love how much she cares, but I care more about her life than her causes.
“Texas Was Clean” gives me some of that life. Of all Amy’s songs on this album, it’s the one closest to the general nostalgic tone of Emily’s batch of tunes. She takes us to a corner of her heart where she holds a special place for Texas, remembering in pristine reflections how it appeared to her as a child — “as far from the South without getting out.” At first it’s just stray images: “boots on the floor of a barn”, “the gridded green” of a football field, the flickering vision of a horse on her bedpost at night. Then, as life proceeds and expands, she shares another Texas memory from later on — “In the Austin night under vapor lights / You laughed at me then you took me in.” The song itself feels pristine — pure harmonies atop quiet bells and acoustic guitar.
For One Lost Day as a whole, Amy’s songs this time felt just a little bit stronger than Emily’s, but they’re both working at an extremely high level, as they have been for years. It’s another strong album, and another bunch of strong songs, but even better for me, it’s another visit from my old friends Amy and Emily. Always great to hear from them.