Much has been written about the challenges faced by veteran recording artists – how they’re expected to create music that’s familiar enough to engage existing fans yet is somehow more than a pale echo of works from ages ago.
Richard Thompson, the British singer/songwriter, has mastered this particular gauntlet – his latest songs sometimes follow roadmaps he’s used before, yet wind up in surprising, wholly new, places. He uses the traits we’d identify as his “signatures” – the skeptical voice, the wry observations, the predatory bite of his rhythm guitar – to lure listeners into whatever he’s thinking about right now.
Some truly great artists find themselves trapped by their signature traits. The singer and songwriter Rickie Lee Jones, whose Pirates (1000 Recordings, pg. 410) is a marvel of storytelling, has struggled with this occasionally over a 30-plus-year career: Her voice and demeanor as a singer is so distinctive, every new song can, from a distance anyway, resemble one of her classics. To combat this, she’s changed up lots about her sound and her process. She’s experimented with loops and different instrumentation and spoken wordish poetry, sometimes creating thick and almost disturbing atmospheres (Ghostyhead), sometimes winding up in a faux-boho tableaux that’s a tad too familiar (parts of The Sermon on Exposition Blvd.).
Jones has a new album, Balm in Gilead, in which she “finishes” songs she worked up and then left on the shelf at various times over the years. It begins with a track called “Wild Girl” that’s upbeat and plenty endearing – and to all but her diehards will likely register as just another Rickie Lee Jones tune. But further in, after a few vignettes and a charming softshoe written by her father called “The Moon Is Made of Gold,” Jones slips listeners into a luminous, jaw-droppingly gorgeous six-minute sanctuary.
“His Jeweled Floor” begins in the mists, with groaning sounds. When Jones enters, she could be in church, or warming up for church. There isn’t really a tempo, but Jones implies one -- moving with the measured, steady cadence of a devotional singer, leaning into the chord changes like she just knows the next one brings everlasting salvation. Her warm, been-around lead voice is one of many – also in the multitracked choir is Vic Chesnut and Victoria Williams – and as the song unfolds, the layered voices swell up into a massive cry, and then spread out, scattering little ad-libbed asides deep inside the tangled vocal architecture. The tune ends in the same epic drone as it began, and as it does, you realize this music is totally unlike anything she’s done before. And then the words, which have cycled through a few times, really begin to resonate. “On his Jeweled Floor,” she sings in that wonderfully weary voice, “I am standing now, Can you see me as I am?”