Every Time I Try to Get Out, He Pulls Me Back In
by Gabe Durham
Before I became the LA-savvy intellectual I am today, my sister and I approached Glen Phillips for a photo after a lively solo acoustic show. He agreed, but was clearly annoyed. “I feel like one of those characters at Disneyland,” he muttered as he posed between the two of us. I vowed never to play the adoring fan again, and the next time I saw Phillips perform, I made sure never to make eye contact for fear that he’d recognize me as “the picture guy.”
It’s six years later, and I like to think that both Phillips and myself have mellowed a little. Back in those days, the former Toad the Wet Sprocket front man was hot off the heals of his greatest artistic achievement: his solo debut, Abulum. The sparse folk-country-rock album sounded like the broken heart of a collaborative musician who found himself alone in a basement with some recording equipment. It was gorgeous, if a little alienating for pop fans, but it didn’t sell. So for his 2005 follow-up, Glen turned up the glitz. Winter Pays For Summer showcased the same great songwriting, but through producer Jon Fields’ ultrapop filter. Some of the tracks (“Easier,” “Finally Fading”) barely survived their sugary treatment, while I could have sworn “Cleareyed” was a Phil Collins cover. The whole album screamed, “Play me on the radio!” and still no one did.
Now, just a year later, Phillips seems to understand that he ought to just make the kind of record he’s best at: the decidedly modest Mr. Lemons.
It couldn’t hurt that Lemons, like Abulum, was originally self-released. To self-release an album is risky for even the most well-established artist: It is to toss a bottle into an ocean of music and hope that it floats to deserving ears. The plus side is that Phillips is completely free. He can finally record songs that he’s been playing live for years (“Marigolds,” “Didn’t Think You Cared”), he can unabashedly praise God (“Thank You”). He can even cover Huey Lewis (“I Want a New Drug”).
While not every decision on Lemons is the best one, the album belongs to Phillips and Phillips alone. His distinct, confident voice carries the album from its bright beginning (the single, “Everything But You”) to its bare, slow-building conclusion (“A Joyful Noise”).
But Glen’s is a hard-won glory. The lyrics on Lemons, even when paired with sunny major chord progressions, have to do with the dark side of love, fear of God, death, selfishness and expectations. In the straightforward “I Still Love You,” a lover remarks to his mate that he has seen her worst side just as she has witnessed his own, before finally telling her, “I’ve seen the worst of you, it’s true / But it’s the smallest part of you.”
On this record, Phillips tastefully downplays his choruses so that it’s the verses that linger. In “Thank You,” there is no chorus at all. In “Marigolds,” the emotion in the chorus is much more memorable than the notes themselves.
“Marigolds” is the confession of a man who sends his sick (potentially drug-addicted) father away for treatment, but not entirely for unselfish reasons. He admits, “My criminal mind is on women and wine / As they finally take you away.” “Marigolds,” sang only over electric guitar and the slightest orchestral flourishes, is Phillips at his best: insightful and delicate.
“Last Sunset,” is a short poetic reminder of our mortality over light acoustic guitar. “One thread it hangs / Swinging, dangling / It breaks, we fall / Bye bye / that’s all.” It’s not a new revelation, but it’s a humble one, and it’s all the better for it’s addition of the strong female vocal performance that graces multiple tracks on Lemons.
Throughout all the darkness on the record, it is gratitude that emerges victorious on nearly every track, and never better than on “Waiting.” The kind of melodious country song Allison Krauss wins Grammies for, “Waiting” is the gem that makes Mr. Lemons a surprising, sweet experience.
It’s almost enough to convince me to let my guard down and compliment him the next time I see him perform. Almost.