The Song of Midsummer

Sam Phillips’ Push Any Button is the perfect album for right now.

Sam Phillips

Photo illustration courtesy

The second-to-last lyric on Sam Phillips’ new album, Push Any Button, could be a motto for every kind of sun-kissed summer music: “This world is so beautiful, for no reason at all.” Yet while Phillips’ story as a singer, songwriter and spirit has taken her through three decades of transformation so far, she isn’t the type to toss worry to the surf and paddle after her bliss. This album compacts 10 tunes into less than 30 minutes, intended both in its title and in its light-but-dynamic arrangements to evoke a 1960s jukebox full of Brill Building-era hits (in contrast with the swipe-any-touchscreen interactions of contemporary pop listening). But even here she can’t resist an infusion of rue, a lime twist of introspection to cut the fizz of the pop.

This is exactly what makes Phillips’ palate cleanser so welcome in mid-August of the summer of 2013. This is a season that’s been more obsessed than any other with identifying its signature anthems, a fever that broke with Stephen Colbert’s singalong sendup of the “Get Lucky” vs. “Blurred Lines” standoff last week. There could be any number of explanations for the peculiar media hype around that rivalry: that last year’s “Call Me Maybe” offered up a rare, all-conquering template of summer-songiness; that maybe there’s a buzz in the air thanks to nascent (if uneven) economic recovery; that the music business these days has an overall desperate-for-attention, dog-in-heat personality. But all the striving gets a bit humidly oppressive.

Of the two dominant Pharrell-featuring musical pheromone traps, “Get Lucky” had me at the first Niles Rogers guitar flutter. It took a late-July wedding in Winnipeg and some twerkin’ with toddlers and the adult cousins of cousins to persuade me “Blurred Lines” wasn’t faking its bubbling funk. Still, what both of them (plus also-ran contenders like “I Love It” or “Treasure”) bypass in their bum rush to ecstasy is any whisper of the poignant. That’s not true of every summer song; think of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” or “When Doves Cry.” It’s a narrowness that I suspect will limit how deeply this year’s bangers sink into the sandy beaches of our memories. Party fixation is all very well for the first months of summer, when sweat and sunscreen still smell fresh and there’s only the anticipation of pleasure ahead. But what of the cooling nights coasting down toward September, when we know the glow hasn’t much longer to go and the smack of watermelon now carries a few vodka-sharp notes of regret?

It’s for just that phase that I’d call upon Phillips, the Los Angeles veteran every pop fan should but doesn’t know: She saunters in, singing, “The sun has burned the skin of my heart/ I’m more than halfway through.” That song, “Going,” is more about middle age than about midsummer, but its pizzicato-perched waltz is perfect for a meditation on any of the cycles to which the turning of the Earth subjects us all.

Those lines don’t arrive until, suitably enough, the album’s midpoint. Where it starts is with more of a rocker, “Pretty Time Bomb.” That tune seems to address the wreckage of young celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes as a microcosm of modern cultural carelessness, with a sound portrait drawn in bopping guitars, hollow drumbeats, and junkyard metal clatter. It might come off as condescending if you don’t know that Phillips was a post-adolescent star herself when she got started in 1983, under her given name Leslie Ann Phillips, in the Christian-music market.

The messages sent by her songs then, such as “Black and White in a Grey World,” were the reverse of the ambivalence that’s since become her compass; her label touted her as the Cyndi Lauper of the Christ-conscious. She grew out of fundamentalism and into a partnership both domestic and musical with producer T-Bone Burnett (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, etc.). Her new persona and collaboration yielded a series of smart, shimmering, Beatles-besotted, never-quite-mainstream 1980s and ’90s albums on Virgin Records, then several more in a rich, acoustic cabaret-folk mode on Nonesuch early in the new century, until the couple (who also have a daughter together) went through what Phillips has acknowledged was a painful split.

So when she sings to the young starlets who seem to be targeted here, “It’s easy to change your name but hard to change your life,” it’s an insight she’s earned.

Since her separation from Burnett, Phillips has been less visible, but she actually produced a huge amount of material from 2009 to 2011 as part of an online-subscription series for fans, while also making music for ABC Family’s late and sorely lamented ballet-class comedy Bunheads. That show had the same creators as the one from which you’re most apt to recognize Phillips’ voice, Gilmore Girls: Her “la la la” interludes were to that series’ aesthetic what the rubber-band bass was to Seinfeld’s.

Still, Push Any Button feels like a re-emergence. Where her last studio album, 2008’s Don’t Do Anything, wore the bruises of lost love all over, this record reaches back to the Top 40 music of her childhood to express rebirth and resilience. After her successful experiment with prolific, technology-brokered production, it returns to a live-band feel, a tight set list, and an idea of the album as a self-contained statement, with the title referring as much to emotional buttons being pushed as to the numbers on a Wurlitzer. The most upbeat moments—such as the timeless, Everlys-like skiffle of “When I’m Alone,” about rediscovering the joy of solitude after heartbreak—have the sass to merit a spot on the Slate Culture Gabfest’s Summer Strut Playlist. But they’re inevitably followed by something like “See You in Dreams,” which coils strums and strings and harmonies around a consideration of loss and death that finds its release only after some hard travelling.

One of my favorite tracks, “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You,” is a fierce list-song of sentiments you might wish you’d never expressed to a departed lover, sung while an unseen, possibly mocking crowd relentlessly claps along. The statements she wishes she could take back range from “Your eyes could take anyone” to “The dead are alive, sometimes more than the living” to, last and most cruelly, “Don’t ever change.” But the song finds its real epiphany in a crushingly concise bridge, where she realizes: “The worst thing is that you don’t even know my secrets—you made up my mind.” At that, Eric Gorfain gets one of his few chances to stretch out on electric guitar, and his grinding slide is the sound of looking back upon a phase gone out of control. But that’s summertime, too, isn’t it?

It’s not a perfect album. It cannot claim a standout Phillips classic on the order of, say, “Reflecting Light,” from A Boot and a Shoe (also heard on the Gilmore and Crazy Heart soundtracks). You could quarrel with the sequencing of its ever-changing moods, although the title more or less invites you to fix that via shuffle. And on a record of 10 short songs, having one that adds almost nothing (“Speaking of Pictures,” a drudging Hollywood-business critique) is a substantial drawback. But over and over the album weaves dark and light, emptiness and fullness, past and present—then lets them unravel enough to admit oxygen.

Phillips is a formidable character as a singer, capable of lushness but always withholding it by a few degrees. Live, she introduces her shows by coming out on stage, blond and slim and often in black, and saying, deadpan, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sam Phillips.” That self-aware distance is what prevents her from being a pop star in the usual sense, as either the warm friend you feel you know or the supernatural force you want to merge with, carnally or otherwise. In ’60s-pop terms she has the bracing cool of a stone-sober Marianne Faithfull, or maybe Jane Birkin as a research scientist. Her moral questions aren’t the kind that resolve into motivational anthems. But for the twilight of a season—for a listener seeking to integrate the peak experiences of the heat and haze into the more grounded months to follow—Phillips knows just what lines to blur.