Walk the Mystery: The essential albums of Sam Phillips

It could have been so easy for the singer born Leslie Phillips to stick with contemporary Christian music forever. By now she might have achieved some kind of emeritus status, living comfortably in Franklin or Brentwood, emerging every few years for a handsome collection of hymns, perhaps an annual Christmas tour with someone like Steven Curtis Chapman. Instead, with a 1987 album called The Turning, Phillips declared her independence from narrowly right-wing evangelicalism and its predilection toward propagandistic expression and pat moralism. Since then, she’s assumed the childhood nickname Sam and released a string of accomplished albums that wrestle with faith and doubt, avoiding dogma for inquisitiveness, ideology for poetics. These albums have not made her a star in any conventional sense, but they have made her a patron saint for similarly-inclined skeptics and believers who view Christianity as an invitation to embrace mystery. If she ever writes a tell-all memoir of her CCM days and subsequent emancipation, she could name it with one of her old song titles: “Answers Don’t Come Easy.”

Of course, this backstory is largely unknown and probably irrelevant to those who only recognize her as the composer for shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, where her signature la-las bear witness to her easeful way with earworm melodies. It is pleasing to think that the TV gigs funded some of the cagey, challenging, philosophically-rich pop records listed below. Her role in Die Hard 3 probably helped, too.

Starting with The Turning, Phillips made seven albums with producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom she was also married. Their collaborations stand among the best work Burnett’s ever done. And yet, it’s possible that the most important creative partnerships in Phillips’ discography are the ones she’s forged with great drummers, foremost among them Jay Bellerose. 

Of the many excellent Sam Phillips albums, these are the ones I hold most dear.

01. A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
The best and final Phillips-Burnett collaboration happens to be a chronicle of their dissolution— and one of the most illuminating divorce albums ever made. If it’s tabloid pull-quotes you’re after, Phillips scatters them like breadcrumbs (“I’m not sorry we loved/ but I hope I didn’t keep you too long”). But her interest is not merely in cataloging grief; “let’s excavate the surface,” she enjoins, in what could be her life’s mantra. And so, in richly suggestive and meaningfully open-ended songs, she digs deep into themes of suffering and surrender; failure and loss as conduits for grace. The presence of God hovers over these songs, even if you can never quite pin him down. Maybe that’s the Divine arriving “One Day Late,” offering consolation to the broken only once they’ve abandoned self-sufficiency; and maybe it’s him Phillips is wrestling with “All Night,” unwilling to let go until he concedes a blessing. But then again, maybe not. These lyrics reward contemplation even as they evade tidy resolution; as ever, answers don’t come easy. If you’re looking for something rock-solid, listen to drummers Bellerose, Carla Azar, and Jim Keltner, whose work here makes A Boot and a Shoe something rare indeed: A singer-songwriter album that’s as taken by rhythm as it is melody and words.

02. Fan Dance (2001)
In many ways, a matching book-end for A Boot and a Shoe— same producer, overlapping personnel, similar half-hour runtime, comparable bent toward catchy tunes played on acoustic instruments. Thanks to Burnett, those instruments sound great: Fan Dance revels in the creaks of the piano bench, the rustle of acoustic strings, the rattle of hand percussion. And the songs seem to capture Phillips at a peak of inspiration: Hear her write gorgeous pop melodies worthy of The Beatles (“Love is Everywhere I Go”) and lean into her droll sense of humor (“Is That Your Zebra?”). The songs are about questing for truth through art, poetry, and beauty. In “Five Colors,” she offers another mantra: “I’ve tried but can’t find refuge in the angle/ I’ll walk the mystery of the curve.”

03. Martinis & Bikinis (1994)
If you only associate T-Bone Burnett with the analog austerity of his post-Raising Sand material, you’ll be in for a shock when you hear the colorful, kinetic sound of Martinis & Bikinis— merely one of the most tuneful and exhilarating guitar-pop albums of the 1990s. In those days, Phillips wasn’t yet writing with the level of introspection that would make her later albums so rich; mostly, Martinis levels righteous anger and prophetic witness against materialism, greed, emotional manipulation, and poor environmental stewardship. I take enormous pleasure in assuming “Baby, I Can’t Please You” addresses the CCM machine from which she was still just-recently unencumbered. 

04. Don’t Do Anything (2008)
Her first self-produced album retains a number of structural and thematic similarities with her T-Bone material, especially Boot and Fan Dance. The biggest difference is Phillips’ rediscovery of electricity, which provides several songs with a jolt of static and hum. Recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is rightly regarded as a classic. But the best song is the title track, which comforts doers and overachievers with the notion of unconditional love.

05. World on Sticks (2018)
Long wary of the outsized influence of commerce and technology in our lives, Phillips spent a decent chunk of the 90s issuing moral warnings that occasionally seemed strident at the time, but have largely been vindicated today. The self-produced World on Sticks sounds wiser and deeper, with Phillips tracing sociopolitical problems to our underdeveloped spiritual formation. (“Troubles on the outside can be reflections of troubles on the inside,” she says in the liner notes.) Sticks also reveals just how confident she’s gotten as a record-maker, with special effects piling up one after the other… many shaking loose from Bellerose’s drum kit, but the majority conjured with cinematic flair by The Section Quartet.

06. The Turning (1987)
Compared with many of the albums that came after it, The Turning now sounds a little bit stiff, a little too cautious. It’s nevertheless an absorbing pop record, and a striking work of conscience. To borrow a phrase from Obi-Wan Kenobi, this is the sound of somebody taking her first step into a larger world. 

07. Push Any Button (2013)
Phillips deals with heavy subject matter, which can sometimes obscure her gifts as a pop confectioner. This 29-minute party record comes spring-loaded with bright melodies, colorful sounds and texture, and crackling rhythms. Enormously fun.

08. Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (1996)
Her boldest experiment— a bizarro mashup of winking lounge music, vaudevillian pop, and psychedelic experimentation. Burnett can always be counted on to line up A-list session pros, and Omnipop’s pleasures come primarily from the chance to hear the likes of Marc Ribot, Jon Brion, and Smokey Hormel creating such lush (or is it louche?) arrangements. Phillips’ songs satirize commercialism in a way that always reminds me of U2’s album Pop: She goes so far down irony’s rabbit hole that she finds its dead end. After this one, there was no option but retreat and reinvention. 

Dig in the Dirt for Light: The surprising excavations of Sam Phillips

worldonsticks

Some songwriters you picture standing on stage holding an acoustic guitar, or dutifully stationed behind a grand piano. Sam Phillips you might imagine wearing a headlamp and wielding a pickaxe. On her many lovely and distinctive albums, truth and mercy lie sparkling and precious, buried beneath rubble and mire, there for anyone willing to roll up their sleeves and extricate them. “Dig, baby,” she exhorted us on 2004’s A Boot and a Shoe. “Let’s excavate the surface.” And now, on her new World on Sticks, she declares her intention to “dig in the dirt for light”—a line so quintessentially Sam Phillips, it might as well be the title of her memoir. She has always believed in deeper realities and unseen good; she has always been about the business of excavation.

World on Sticks joins a lineage of albums that haul that unseen good to the surface, mining grace notes from the most unexpected places. On The Turning, it was a crisis of faith; on A Boot and a Shoe and Don’t Do Anything, romantic dissolution. For her first set of songs since 2013’s Push Any Button, Phillips is writing in a more prophetic office, surveying the ravaging effects of unchecked prosperity and unencumbered freedom. It’s an album about how greed and capital strangle our connections to each other, to the environment, to any broader sense of mystery; about how limitlessness can be imprisoning, and desiring more and more satisfies less and less. “I want what I can’t have,” coos Phillips in a slinky, rattlesnake groove called “Continuous Limit,” dissatisfaction springing eternal. But the diagnosis is followed by a word of wisdom: “You don’t have to make a living when you’re alive/ You don’t have to make a killing before you die.” At every turn, the album resists materialism as a dead-end and a mirage; it sifts through ephemera for truth that will last.

This is weighty subject matter, but Phillips has made a career out of defying gravity. A specialist in pure pop, she has an easy way with melody that lends many of her albums summer soundtrack status, while her ear for breezy vocal hooks has won her steady work composing for shows like Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Her songs are always deliriously tuneful and terse, but what she never gets enough credit for is her role as the preeminent pop tinker. Ever since she started producing her own records Phillips has displayed an impish zeal for playing around with different tones and colors, and on World on Sticks she schemes a high wire balancing act between the tight-knit band alchemy that made Push Any Button crackle and the lush orchestrations of a string ensemble. The band includes Chris Bruce on guitar, Jennifer Condos on bass, and drummer of drummers Jay Bellerose on all things that shake and rattle; the strings are arranged by Eric Gorfain and played by The Section Quartet. It’s an alchemic match-up that combines the punchy energy of rock and roll with the intimacy of torch songs, and it results in visceral pleasures as well as impressionistic effects. “World on Sticks” is a study in melody, groove, and noise, Bellerose unleashing some of his most thunderous playing, punctuated by squalls of loose electricity. The bleary “Teilhard,” meanwhile, is a wind tunnel of rustling acoustic strings and clanking percussion. On the mournful “Tears on the Ground,” strings fall like shadows across a winding road, while on “Roll ‘Em,” a song about a sociopath, they create a black hole down which the singer disappears. All of these songs are uniquely evocative; all are impeccably succinct, hook-filled, and buoyant.

They chronicle failed connections, intangible realities all but abandoned to material concerns. There are lost connections to the natural world; on the spare and urgent opener, “Walking Trees,” Phillips contrasts the patient wisdom of the planet to the rootlessness of its inhabitants: “If we could find one place, we’d grow the roots down/ But we’re like walking trees/ We can’t stay in the ground/ If we could always keep moving and never stay where we are/ We’d have to hold to the underground to reach up to the stars.” (Remember on Fan Dance, when she sang that “God is growing underground”?) There’s also “Tears on the Ground,” which mourns for a world that can only endure so much negligence and abuse: “The Earth has fever in her angry eyes/ Fires make the waters rise/ As we’re watching her gardens die/ The future’s falling from our eyes.” Phillips’ songs cast our lost connection to the world around us as an act of profound self-destruction. But there are also songs about being lost to the self; “Roll ‘Em” is a dark confession of ruthlessness, the frank admission of someone who’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants; the plucky “I Want to Be You” is just as disturbing, a dispassionate song of self-estrangement. All of these songs are, on some level, about lost connection to objective reality itself, but none more explicitly than “How Much Is Enough,” which quietly rages against our era of epistemological murk: “Someone keeps giving out the wrong numbers/ We’re not supposed to know what’s true.”

Phillips’ lyrics are littered with signs of the times—or “signposts in a strange land,” as she once called them. “American Landfill Kings,” about an empire built on garbage, seems at first like a return to the moral witness of “Black Sky” and “Same Changes,” withering blasts of conscience that Phillips has largely backed away from in favor of songs that riddle and tease, suggest and provoke. Yet even a song like this one, with its sinister hurdy-gurdy rhythm, is scalpel-sharp in its diagnosis; it’s a snapshot of a culture of hoarders, where an obsession with collected junk reflects internal entropy and disarray. Its humor is mirthless and bleak—but remember Phillip’s mission statement: She’s digging in the dirt for light, and on the album’s final song she unearths some. It’s hard to hear the string-swept benediction, “Candles and Stars,” without thinking of A Boot and a Shoe’s “Reflecting Light,” maybe the most cherished of all Sam Phillips songs. Both are about the paradox of grace, how it can only be channeled through flawed and broken vessels. But where she had “worn out the world” on that earlier song, here she has no such luxury; on a planet cannibalizing itself, our only hope lies in reconnection. Atop stately piano and thumping percussion, Phillips sings: “If only with candles and with stars/ and broken light from dreams like ours/ we will still find the way through/ to love.” The song is just a glimmer shining through rubble– the kind of light Phillips has spent her entire career digging for.