On her remarkable new album The Nocturne Diaries the Austin-based musician decisively joins the ranks of songwriting’s icons.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
Hopefully there will be a chapter in the Great English-Language Songbook for veteran performing songwriters who – while never quite reinventing the form the way Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Laura Nyro or Leonard Cohen have done – consistently married strong, inventive melodies with cliché-free, descriptive lyrics grounded in both the tangible world and their own feelings toward it.
And, while not musically conservative, they avoided new sounds for new sounds’ sake – preferring to have confidence in their strengths and influences as they constantly honed and improved their craft.
John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, Rosanne Cash all belong there—and so does Eliza Gilkyson, whose new album is The Nocturne Diaries (Red House Records). Maybe not so heralded as the others – except in her home, Austin, where she’s an institution – she’s been recording since 1969 but only found her groove after signing with Red House Records in 2000.
She is at heart a folk-based singer-songwriter, but her lyrical concerns are contemporary rather than nostalgically rural, even when she consciously references traditional down-home music, as on the new album’s “Eliza Jane.” Overall there’s a principled (but never overbearing) humanism guiding her worldview. And her songs definitely rock, if never in a way that overpowers her words.
The voice does have a touch of country-music pining when she holds notes, but it’s also clear, quick and light-steppingly youthful. (She’s in her early sixties.) And her electric guitar, which basically accompanies the melodies, can jump out and snarl when she desires, as she does on this album’s “The Red Rose and the Thorn.”
She produced The Nocturne Diaries with son Cisco Ryder, and wrote or co-wrote all but two of the twelve songs. One of those two, “Fast Freight,” is by her late dad, songwriter Terry Gilkyson, who had a hit record back in 1956 with “Marianne” and co-wrote Dean Martin’s “Memories Are Made of This.” (Her brother, incidentally, is Tony Gilkyson, of Lone Justice and X fame.) She envelops his lonely train song in a swampy, spooky, midnight-blues atmosphere, aided by Ray Bonneville’s moaning harmonica, and it’s a standout. The other cover, “Where No Monument Stands,” is a fine, eloquently written anti-war poem by William Stafford with music penned by her labelmate John Gorka that is perfect for her voice and sensibilities.
So, too, is her own “American Boy,” which rocks with polite insistence but gives away its unease with its unexpected minor-chords. It’s a tale, told in the first-person, of a troubled youth struggling to contain his violent urges, and the writing is dread-inducing perfect: “I posted pictures on my Facebook site/A shooting star in a long dark night/A lonely kid beneath the basement light/With thunder in his hands.”
Gilkyson is particularly thoughtful about the place for the heart in the world of modern technology. In “No Tomorrow,” she intones a lover to “turn off the harsh glare of the flat screen blue light/turn off the hardware, get it out of my sight/turn your face to me and hold me tonight.”
But she’s thoughtful (and anxious) about the fate and future of the world, and her place in it, period. In “World Without End,” on which her acoustic guitar gently provides accompaniment as the arrangement slowly lets in other instruments, she questions the title’s easy assumption as “something they told us/to keep us enslaved to our dreams.”
Yet the graceful closing song (for which Jens Lysdal provided music for her lyrics and John Egenes adds slide and pedal steel guitar and saw) finds contentment in life as is – if it offers love. “But wherever I roam/far from you and our home/I’ve got it all right here in my heart.”
Like her other songs on The Nocturne Dairies, those lyrics are direct and clear, carefully chosen and thought-about, sincere and wise.
Photo credit: Thom C from Blackstone Valley, via Wikimedia Commons.