Or: Madeleine Peyroux’s liturgy of joy and sadness.
Whatever bone of contention I have here is strictly with the title. The 10 songs on Secular Hymns mention God about as much as the Book of Esther does, which is to say not at all, though anyone who’s following closely will see exactly whose fingerprints are all over that biblical account just as surely as they’ll note the liturgical aura of these covers, which glow with the sacred act of singing even as they revel in the bawdiness of life among the dust. They were recorded in a church, it’s important to note, and comprise a fitting psalter for anyone who believes every square inch of this world to be beautiful and redeemed, every human who occupies it a dark marvel and an image of the divine. These are songs that unite us in the bond of humanity and the shared love of neighbor, and that’s all good and holy work.
Beyond that? There is nothing to complain about on this program, which finds Madeleine Peyroux—no slouch as a songwriter—at the top of her game as an interpretive singer, pledging her allegiance to the tower of song. The music was all cut live in a trio setting—Peyroux singing and playing acoustic guitar, Jon Herington on the electric, and Barak Mori on upright bass. There is an intimacy to these recordings that’s not unlike Over the Rhine’s homespun Good Dog Bad Dog, or to Cowboy Junkies’ similarly churchly Trinity Sessions: The ambiance is warm and welcoming, the sound clear enough for the sonorous pop of the bass to stand out, for the instruments to bleed into each other in hallowed communion, and for the grain in the singer’s voice to carry the heady implication and hushed innuendo in each song.
The tunes themselves bear witness to a tradition that makes new compositions sound like standards and ancient songs like they were written yesterday; it’s not so different an aesthetic as what you hear on Every Picture Tells a Story, for instance. Barrelhouse blues provide the foundation but there are also songs by Tom Waits, Allen Toussaint, Townes Van Zandt, and even Stephen Foster. Together they lift up the weariness of life during hard times; they raise songs of ascent for better ones. They acknowledge love’s rough and tumble, and they delight in the act of play. Every performance is deeply affirming of what it means—what it must mean—for us to raise our voices together in song.
Waits’ “Tango Til They’re Sore” is presented here in the best rendition it’s received outside of Rain Dogs, Mori bowing his bass to introduce the song as a randy cabaret. Peyroux delivers it like the monologue in a classic film noir: She’s steely, tough, coy. Her phrasing strips the song of any sense of artifice even as it revels in the truth-telling power of theater: She sings as a character with deep bruises and a heart too hard to be broken, yet there’s something in her singing that suggests a real vulnerability, too. One of the song’s pleasures is in the colloquial lilt of her voice—note how she pronounces it “winda’” instead of “window,” her drawl doing its own kind of character work. And compare that with how she savors her words on “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky (From Now On),” where she’s singing with a curl in her lip and an eyebrow raised: “I gotta be myself and do my thing/ a little soul can’t do no harm.” Just try and tell me otherwise, she dares us.
That Allen Toussaint song is also great proof of the resourcefulness of this unit; this is a record that easily earns comparisons to Elvis Costello’s Trust or even Duke Ellington’s Money Jungle for the way it takes a familiar format and redefines just how elastic it can be. The thing about the Toussaint thing is that it actually is funky, even without a drummer, and captures effortlessly his smooth, easygoing New Orleans groove. Townes’ “The Highway Kind,” meanwhile, is a tumble of chords and regrets. On Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “Shout Sister Shout,” the bass provides the bounce while the other trio members answer Peyroux in a spirited call-and-response; there’s a swingin’ breakdown in the middle and gospel fire throughout, but Peyroux sketches it out like the standard that it is. Most surprising is “More Time,” a reggae tune where the bass is the bedrock and Peyroux chews each word like it’s a piece of saltwater taffy.
The Foster tune, “Hard Times Come Again No More,” feels like an anchor here, a bit of High-Church hymnody amidst a generally grittier, earthier bit of noisemaking; it’s notable that the song calls for an intentional break from sensuality, a moment’s reverie to remember sorrow’s intrusions; it’s a song for reflection, a song for empathy and mercy. Flannery O’Connor conjectured that death and disease and sadness are suspensions of the natural state of things; that they are not the rule, but rather that they break it. The worldview of Secular Hymns seems to be one where sadness is the distortion of joy, and not the other way around. And so the singer pauses to send hard times out the door—but two songs later, she’s pleading for a few more precious seconds to savor the sweet things of this life. The singer’s duty, like the songwriter’s, is to offer a hymn for every occasion. This joyous record has it covered.