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Intersection of Life and Faith

Don't Do Anything

  • Josh Hurst Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2008 8 Aug
  • COMMENTS
Don't Do Anything
"This is bigger than you, or the part of the truth you trust/ This is the breaking up." —from "No Explanation"

There's always a temptation for people to turn art into autobiography. When a songwriter pens a tune about love lost, we assume it's the songwriter who has lost love, rather than the perspective of someone else close to the writer (or someone fictional). When songwriters allude to a crisis of faith, we figure it's their own faith that has been shaken. When grief is the subject of a song, our natural inclination is to think it's borne out of a very specific period of grief in the artist's own life. And, of course, such assumptions are sometimes correct. Art is always going to be personal on some level, but that doesn't mean there isn't room for imagination in the creative process alongside experience.

Still, there are probably some experiences you just can't write about until you've been through it yourself. As much as there is to be said for writing in character, there's no mistaking the power and sharp edges of Sam Phillips' latest album, Don't Do Anything—an album so candid, so frightening in its honesty, it couldn't have been made from anything but real life. And anyone who heard Phillips' previous album, 2004's masterful A Boot and a Shoe, knows just what her life has been like over the past few years. With its open-vein lyrics about betrayal and heartache, its weary humor and its weathered testaments to faith and hope in the darkest of hours, that album was unmistakably the product of the breakdown of Phillips' marriage to producer T-Bone Burnett. Call it her Blood on the Tracks if you want, but in truth, it's an album so personal that it's hardly an archetypal break-up album. It's an album only Sam Phillips could have made.

So, naturally, the same can be said for Don't Do Anything—essentially, a sequel. Oh, there are some crucial differences here—if anything, it's a wearier, darker collection, and the music is more varied, blending the organic ensemble playing of her past two records with the ominous electric guitars of Cruel Inventions. But it's impossible to hear this record as anything but a follow-up to A Boot and a Shoe, another record that plumbs the depths of heartbreak and pain and comes up with fragile but nevertheless vivid glimmers of grace. Not only is the subject matter the same, but she even uses some of the same metaphors and lyrical motifs. Don't hold it against her; when you're dealing with devastation like this, you're probably not going to figure everything out with just one record.

Obviously, there's a lot of turmoil on this album, stemming not just from her divorce, but from her own feelings of frustration within the music industry, which has never really given her a fair shake. "Imagine no one noticing you," she sings at the beginning of "Flowers Up," and it doesn't sound like anger—it sounds like resignation. Also, keep in mind that Phillips was once part of a different industry—the Christian music biz, where she recorded a string of popular albums under the name Leslie Phillips before growing frustrated with the artistic confines of the industry and heading to a mainstream label. She may have left Christian music, but not Christianity, as this album gloriously demonstrates; for all its honesty about the heartache and brokenness of this world, its convictions about divine grace are just as strong.

Nowhere is that more apparent than the title song, a spiritual anthem that comes close to reaching a level of the heavens generally reserved for U2's songs. Standing in stark contrast to the surrounding songs about a frail, broken, corrupted human love—a love with strings attached and no lasting guarantees—this song is a stirring reminder of a perfect, redeeming love that provides all that it asks for. "I love you when you don't do anything," sings Phillips, and it's hard to hear the song as anything but a testament to God's grace, a love that comes with no conditions. It's a bright light in the midst of Phillips' personal darkness, and it illuminates all the shadows here, turning the album into a celebration of grace in the midst of chaos. As Phillips told Christianity Today magazine for their review of the album, ""It's a pretty radical statement. Everything is so performance oriented in our society that it's easy to lose sight of grace and love."

Even if that perfect redeeming love exists only in the heavens, its ramifications are felt right here on Earth. The brief closing number, "Watching Out of this World," finds Phillips looking past her grief, searching beyond the temporal trappings of this life to the promise of the next. It's an echo of the sentiment that closed her last album in a song called "One Day Late"—a reminder that God's help is real, but his deliverance will not be on human terms. Patience and trust are vital.

Which is not to say that there's a Gnostic-style rejection of this present age; Phillips finds hope not just in heaven, but even in flashes of God's grace right here on Earth. Art and beauty become the vessels through which God communicates his love, and through which the artist herself finds order in the midst of chaos. What do you do with a broken and betrayed heart? Well, "you write another song," she tells us. Later in the album, music is celebrated in the glorious "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," a song that reminds us that even the beauty of art can point us to lasting, divine truths. And even the pain and suffering of this world are used by God to mold us and conform us; in "Shake it Down," a cantankerous little groove that sounds like it crawled out of Tom Waits' junkyard, Phillips wryly paints grief and anguish as means through which God cultivates in us a trusting dependence on him.

It's no surprise Phillips lists "making order out of chaos" as her favorite hobby in her official bio, even if, as she wryly notes, it doesn't often work. Her music does something even better: It bears honest, painful witness to the truths of this world's darkness, but also reminds us of the light that never goes out. Don't Do Anything is a harrowing work, to be sure, but it's also hopeful—the kind of art that was no doubt therapeutic for the artist, and, if paid the attention it deserves, just might prove moving and inspiring to listeners, as well.

Unless specified clearly, we are not implying whether this artist is or is not a Christian. The views expressed are simply the author's. For a more complete description of our Glimpses of God articles, click here