2020 delivers a message from deep in Eliza Gilkyson’s heart. She stares deeply into the political, ecological, social, and moral quagmire through which we are trudging these days and responds in poetic and prophetic lyrics that at once mourn the state of our world and celebrate the power of community to change it. Gilkyson stands alongside Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Woody Guthrie in steering us through the moral complacency of a too-often callous society; like them she knows that both evil and good lurk in the human heart, and she calls out the corruption and greed of politicians who seek to divide communities even as she calls upon the communion of those who love one another to recognize that they’re not alone in a broken world.
2020 opens with “Promises to Keep,” a song that’s alone worth the price of the album. It’s a song for our times, and its poignant and aching beauty resonates in our hearts long after its last notes. The song opens with lush organ chords that open into spare guitar strums before Gilkyson quietly adds her voice to the musical layers that already have carried us out of ourselves. “Promises to Keep” plays like a lullaby, and indeed it lulls us gently into its spell as it challenges the inadequacy of responding to unspeakable acts of violence with “thoughts and prayers.” Uncertainty rings through the song, but the hope — “promises to keep” — for a more loving and just world carries the singer: “I’ve been hoping there’ll be some way through / And all of our loved ones will be fine / No one knows what it’ll come down to / So I’m just looking for a sign.” “Promises to Keep” should be on everyone’s tongue in these turbulent times.
The soulful march “Peace in Our Hearts,” propelled by Mike Hardwick’s searing slide guitar, defiantly affirms the way that we’ll look evil in the eye and overcome it. “Gonna walk together arm in arm / With peace in our hearts / So our sisters and brothers won’t come to any harm / Gonna stare into the face of the hateful mind / With peace in our hearts.” The bright and lilting “Beach Haven” is adapted from Woody Guthrie’s letter to Beach Haven, an apartment building owned by Fred Trump (Donald Trump’s father). The possibilities for human unity exist if only we could “lick this crazy racey hate together” and then “we could shake hands together and get together / And walk together and talk together / And sing together and dance together.” The country waltz “Beautiful World of Mine” celebrates the splendor of the natural world and promises to take care of it: “I have loved you since I can remember / Your water is my holy wine / I’ll be faithful and true, for I’ve pledged my life to / This beautiful world of mine.”
The album closes with the somber reminder that “We Are Not Alone,” which begins sparsely with guitar and vocals but builds steadily to a full chorus, floating along gorgeously layered instrumentation, repeating “we are not alone.” In its lush wall of sound the song is reminiscent of Jackson Browne’s “For Everyman.”
Every song on 2020 moves us with its eloquence and heart-rending beauty. Gilkyson’s brilliant lyrics provide the hope we need in this year when the world seems to falling down around us. Everyone should own a copy of 2020, memorize its songs, sing them at rallies and hootenannies, and let them ring through halls and parks as anthems of change and hope and love.