Sorry I’ve been AWOL here in the Rabbit Room for awhile – When I haven’t been hunkered down writing for a new record, I’ve been cloistered away from the world to spend time with my family. But what is it that could call me out of my hiding? A new Jill Phillips record.
One of the perks of being an artist is that I get to keep company with other artists and often find myself graced by friendships with people who I’ve long admired. Such is the case with Andy Gullahorn and Jill Phillips (Gullahorn). I was a fan long before I was a friend, and though I’ve spent a fair amount of time with them and shared meals at their dinner table, there are still times where I revert to a geeky fanboy and can’t believe my good fortune to have fallen into such great company. “Don’t be a spaz, don’t be a spaz,” becomes my mantra in these moments.
So you can imagine my delight when Andy & Jill gave me a copy of Jill’s new record, The Good Things, two and a half months before it’s release date. I was like a kid in a candy shop, as the equivalent of salivary glands in my ears began to tingle. So I guess you could say that when Andy handed me the disc, my ears began to water in anticipation of the delectable sounds they would soon be treated to (please accept my apologies for that ridiculous word picture). At any rate, The Good Things has been in regular rotation ever since.
I was a fan of Jill’s for years and her album Writing On The Wall is one of my favorite records of all time. Nobody’s Got it All Together didn’t disappoint either, but as I started to anticipate the next record, I secretly hoped to hear Jill break some new ground musically and lyrically, which is what I think she’s done on The Good Things. This is unmistakably a Jill Phillips record, but there is a sense of adventure, of something being risked. It’s not the kind of showy, in-your-face bombastic experimentation, but rather the risks she takes here are more subtle, nuanced, and intimate as she reaches for new levels of self-disclosure.
The Good Things is an adventure of the heart, and the new production value supports this. It’s still very organic and acoustic like her past efforts, but producer Cason Cooley (Derek Webb) brings his signature vibe that adds a depth and ambiance to these tracks. Cooley is a fan of Daniel Lanois (Producer for U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, etc.) and even worked under Lanois’s right hand man Malcolm Burns when Burns produced a record for Cooley’s former band The Normals. I think he brings a similar production sensibility to Jill’s record here and the songs benefit from Cooley’s musicality – especially the opener “Your Usual Response” – drenched with the kind of ethereal vibe that feels like a warm sonic bath.
As a side note, and this is subjective so it may not be the case at all, but for me, I felt a lot of these tracks were defined by the drum tone and the personality of the snare. I geek out over sounds and I love the way the drums sound on this record – they feel organic, fat, and vibey and as soon as they would come in they cued me about what this song would be about musically. But I obsess over these kinds of things, so I’ll step out of geek mode now and get back to the heart of the matter.
Because really, the heart is the matter for this record. There’s a lot I could say about each song, but I’ll focus on three that to my mind represent what I love most about this record. Many of these songs are deeply personal and explore the tension between remaining open hearted versus shutting your heart down to protect yourself from shame (“Your Usual Response”), relational hurt (“Any Other Way”), or the biggest heart killer of all – disappointment with God (“Resurrection”).
“Your Usual Response” opens the record and was my immediate favorite. Cooley’s production takes a great song and makes it even better. This is the vibiest track on the record, and I hope that it signals more to come in future Jill Phillips installments.
“Resurrection” is a declaration of faith at it’s most convincing because it is a quiet, humble hope without bravado. It is hope that looks at the worst that we see – different facets of the senselessness of death and suffering explored in each verse – and still proclaims:
Though it’s hard sometimes
You are the Resurrection and the Life.”
But the gem of the record for me is possibly the most personal. “Any Other Way” explores a difficult time in their marriage and the blessing that came in seeing it through. I can imagine this song being a great encouragement to other couples in the throws of relational hardship. The lyric is honest, direct, and blessedly devoid of poetic self-indulgence. We know that both Andy and Jill are exceptionally competent writers (lyrical ninjas as I like to call them), but the lyric that exemplified what I respect most about their songcraft comes from the bridge:
“When we first met, love was a feeling
Making it last, that’s a decision
A good decision”
I imagine as a writer myself that there is a part of me that would resist writing a line like this because it’s a sentiment that many of us may have heard before. I would be tempted to write something more clever or “songwriterly”. But of course it’s exactly what needs to be said, and so Andy & Jill are brave enough to say it. They demonstrate here that they are less interested in impressing me with the clever lyricism they are clearly capable of than they are with telling me the truth and helping me. To love your listener enough to speak plainly is a great virtue that is sometime overlooked in songcraft. Sometimes you just need to say the thing, and knowing when that is is one of the marks of a great writer.
The rest of the song is brilliant and very intimate, as it expresses in detail what this season of life felt like for them – talk of moving away to a different city, the feeling of having the rug pulled out from under your feet, the courage of taking the first steps back to trust, and the gratitude that comes in the end when all is said and done and you’ve found the grace to do the hard work of marriage and come out better for it on the other side.
But it’s not just the lyric that reveals an eagerness to risk a deeper sense of intimacy and self-disclosure, it is Jill’s voice, too. Any one who’s heard her sing knows she could sing the phone book and it would make you cry, but there’s something different this time around that I can only describe as a profound sense of vulnerability.
Some of these songs come to us like a whisper of Grace, and whispers always make you lean in, quietly, to listen more intently. It’s like a relaxed conversation with a trusted friend, a conversation that leaves you feeling more human, alive, and more in touch with the holiness that ties all the good things in our lives together and gives them meaning and a sense that God has taken note of us, we are not alone, He knows our name and is intimately involved in all the details that make up the story of our lives.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".