Giving thanks for a few of our favorite albums
By Dave Herrera
Okay, quick disclosure before I get too far down the road here: While this album is not exactly my favorite (that distinction probably belongs to either What's Going On by Marvin Gaye or Astral Weeks by Van Morrison), it's easily among my favorites. At first I was going to write about one of those two, but then I thought about it and realized that volumes have already been written about those other masterpieces by people far more astute than me, unlike this one, which is relatively unheralded by comparison.
So, yes, Sam Phillips, The Indescribable Wow: What an absolutely perfect title -- albeit a bit of a misnomer, as Phillip masterfully deals with the rapturous reverie and relentless regret of love with an exacting eloquence. I absolutely love this album. I've gone through at least three or four copies of it on CD. I'm sort of obsessed, if you want to know the truth (I'm mean, seriously, who buys more than one copy of an album they already have? It's embarrassing, really). I have no doubt I startled a few folks with my uncontainable shrieks of idiotic glee when I happened upon a mint condition copy of record on vinyl this past summer at the record store. I couldn't wait to get home and put it on the turntable, and when I finally did, oh my.
Released in 1988, this record was essentially the coming out party for the former bumper-sticker Christian pop artist previously known as Leslie Phillips. It was her second outing with the now revered producer (and Phillips now ex-husband) T-Bone Burnett, and marked the continued transition toward much more considered songwriting that began with her previous album, The Turning. Add to that arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, and, well, you have an album that lives up to its title.
But those are just the biographical facts. The most stirring part about this record isn't necessarily who contributed to it, but rather the way it makes me feel. Although much has changed about my life since this album first slayed me, invariably, every time I hear it, from just the opening notes of "I Don't Know How to Say Goodbye to You," I experience the exact same sullen, bittersweet, grief-stricken sensation that I had back then.
And bittersweet is exactly right word for this record. The thing that grabbed me then is the same thing that grabs me now: The emotional paradox presented by the pained melancholia of the words set against the a pop-inflected majesty of the songs, which, especially given the time period, it would've been reasonable to assume you were listening to the work of the Bangles.
One thing you should know about me -- assuming this isn't already obvious -- I'm a bit of a sad sack, the type of guy who revels in the romanticism of feeling bad. So there's a part of me that relishes the idea of re-examing the revelations and ruminations that come with unrequited love and then feeling "that old familiar pain," as Dan Folgeberg once put it in "Same Old Lang Syne." And the Indescribable Wow does that for me, like no other album before or since.
Although I ended up eventually getting the girl, this record takes me back to a time when our love was still new, when after parting ways for the dozenth and what I thought was finally the last time. When I listen to "I Don't Want to Fall In Love," "I Can't Stop Crying," "What Do I Do?" and "I Don't Want to Say Goodbye to You," I vividly remember laying in my bed, paralyzed, marinating in my sorrow, to the point that even my friends couldn't save me (think of that sequence in Singles when Campbell Scott hasn't left the house for what seems like weeks), listening to this record on endless repeat. The lines are still as poignant and affecting to me today as they were back then:
I saw black and you saw red
Crawled to separate corners
The line went dead
I closed my heart up
I tore your love for me to shreds
Love can't breathe
Pulling tighter to my ruthless need
Don't look down
I want you inconsolably
Maybe it was timing or circumstance, but whatever the case, it felt like Phillips was singing my life -- only telling my story a million times better than I ever could have. I still marvel at the opening lines of "I Don't Want to Fall in Love."
We're not lovers, you and I
I can't think of reasons why
I should want you like that
I'm stranded by my passion
The whole idea fits us like a suit gone out of fashion
As I said goodbye and drove away,
Words I'd like to hear you say
Rolled across my mind like clouds in unexpected flurry
I stumbled on a minefield where desire was still buried
The Indescribable Wow indeed.