Grant-Lee Phillips has been doing this for a while, and he knows it. “I may not be young / A lot of songs are sung,” he concedes calmly on the leadoff track of Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff, hastening to insist, “Ain’t done yet / More dreaming left to do.” This declaration of middle-aged vitality sets the tone for a quietly remarkable album that meets life’s uncertainties head-on without resorting to easy answers.
The leader of Grant Lee Buffalo in the ’90s and a solo artist for the last two decades, Phillips has always drawn on a deceptively wide range of styles, even when he appeared to fit comfortably into the Americana troubadour niche. Over the years, it’s been possible to detect traces of the David Bowie-T. Rex school of glam-rock, as well as Springsteen’s wall-of-sound epics.
Here, however, acoustic guitar-based ballads are the default mode, creating the perfect setting for his wonderfully expressive voice, which exudes weary resilience yet never strains for effect. With all due respect to his deft, unobtrusive players, among them Jay Bellerose (drums), Jennifer Condos (bass), Eric Heywood (guitar, steel), and Danny T. Levin (occasional horns), Phillips’s eloquent songs would have sounded just fine unadorned.
Many tracks suggest tuneful diary entries. The ambling “Lowest Low” describes feeling physically weak and vulnerable, and “Coming To” gently recounts a return from the depths of despair, observing, “Now the fog has finally lifted / And the daylight’s breaking through / It’s been a long time drifting / But I’m coming to.” The beautiful “Mourning Dove” reflects on suffering, loss, and mortality as Phillips sighs, “One day I’m gonna lay my head / In the long cool shadow of the dogwood … No weeping when the mourning dove arrives.” What might be creepy or morbid coming from a less-graceful performer is genuinely soothing here.
Elsewhere, Phillips looks to the wider world, issuing an environmental alarm on “Gather Up,” a jittery, country blues-tinged romp that breaks the album’s pastoral vibe to warn, “The earth is reelin’.”
If the lovely “Sometimes You Wake Up in Charleston” initially seems like a fond ode to Southern gentility, he soon makes it clear his intentions are otherwise, noting softly, “Hear the bells of Emanuel chime,” referencing the racist murder of nine churchgoers in 2015, and adding, “The cars on the avenue crawl / Like a funeral procession.” The image of “azaleas on the grave” beautifully evokes the disconnect between horrifying reality and idyllic myth in a way Randy Newman would admire. It’s a heartbreaking masterpiece.
Phillips closes Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff with another gem, “Walking in My Sleep,” revisiting the theme of renewal explored in “Coming To.” Singing softly, “The way that I’m feeling now / It’s only a fever dream / I know it’ll break / But I can’t say just when,” he embraces hope, free of phony platitudes — and perhaps offering a guide for surviving these scary times. Grant-Lee Phillips may not be a kid anymore, but he’s aging with supreme grace.