Last week, I wrote my first ever book review, about “The Bonobo and the Atheist” and a lot of readers told me that they enjoyed it. Today, I’m trying my hand at writing review of an album that I have been listening to a lot lately. Unlike my fairly serious and intellectual background studying literature, my history with musical criticism pretty well starts and ends with rock critics who published a lot back in the seventies and eighties. Writers like Robert Palmer of the New York Times who helped drag my friends and I out of the mire of progressive rock and into the downtown clubs where we would hear acts like the Ramones; critics like Robert Christgau, Lance Loud, Patti Smith and the others who wrote for Circus Magazine; the writers at Rolling Stone, Cream and the Village Voice all helped me develop my appreciation for popular music and of the scene that surrounds it.
Later, in my thirties, I became a huge jazz fan. I’ve read as much as I could find about Miles, Coltrane, Monk and others from the fifties and sixties. I love their music and am a “serious” listener but, unlike my literary background, my understanding is purely as an educated fan and not one that comes from any formal study.
So, my loyal readers, here’s my first attempt at a album review. Please tell me if you like it and how I can make such better in the future.
I love great lyrics and, excepting for purely instrumental jazz and classical recordings, I tend toward acts whose words inspire, amuse, challenge embolden and effect me emotionally in many ways. My favorite lyricists include William Gilbert, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Lehrer, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, Buffy Sainte-Marie, George Jones, Joan Baez, Elvis Costello and many more. I judge all lyrics on a zero to Bob Dylan scale, as I consider him to be the greatest English language lyricist of my lifetime and I must say that the young Australian singer/songwriter Shelley Segal rates pretty high on my obviously subjective rating system.
I had the opportunity to meet and chat with Shelley at the recent Women in Secularism conference in DC. We recorded an interview for Pod Delusion, the podcast to which I contribute, she played a single song concert in my hotel room and we chatted and became friends over the afternoon we spent together in Washington. I must say, along with writing terrific songs and singing with strength and conviction, Shelley is also one of the nicest people I’ve met in years. Shelley’s kindness, generosity of spirit, intellect and sense of humor shine in person and in the lyrics to this terrific album.
I first became aware of Shelley when I heard her interviewed on “The Atheist Nomads” podcast where I had been interviewed about accessibility and the skeptic, humanist, atheist and other related movements a few months earlier. Then, I heard Shelley interviewed on the outstanding, “Best Podcast” Occam Award winning “Token Skeptic” and, when I got the opportunity to meet her in DC, I asked and she generously agreed to do an interview with me for the two time Occam winning “Pod Delusion” podcast. After the interview, we had the opportunity to spend the afternoon together, a time I enjoyed immensely.
Singing With The Choir
Since returning from DC and having listened to this album repeatedly, I did what I typically do when I really enjoy something, I told my friends about the album and urged them to listen to it. Most everyone enjoyed it nearly as much as I did but the one criticism of Shelley’s work came in the question, “Isn’t she just preaching to the choir?” In my talk with Shelley, she addressed this question right away. She puts it into a different perspective by saying, “I’m not preaching to the choir; I’m singing with the choir.”
All throughout “An Atheist Album” I hear my own world view expressed in song. Did Shelley effect my opinion? Not in a dramatic manner, I was an atheist when I first heard the recording and I’m still an atheist so there was no conversion here. What I did hear, though, maybe for the first time in Shelley’s remarkable lyrical work was a sense that an artist can take my thoughts and express them in an elegant and entertaining fashion that raises one’s heart and consciousness at the same time. Shelley walks the fine line between poetry and philosophy with such grace and élan that I find myself referring to lines from her work to inspire me.
My favorite song on “An Atheist Album” is Shelley’s anthemic expression of goodness without god called “Gratitude.” I am often confronted by Christians who ask the question, “How can you be good without god? Without fear of punishment, what would stop people from killing and raping each other?”
My typical response to this query is, “I’ve already killed and raped all of the people I ever wanted to, a total of zero of either. I’m a ‘good’ person because I accept that being good is the best way to live. I don’t fear punishment and don’t think other people need punishment to motivate them to be good either.” Now, I can simply point people who ask such questions to “Gratitude” by Shelley Segal and tell them, “this pretty well sums it up in a manner far better than I could.”
While talking to Shelley, she told me the story of how she came to write this song. You can hear it all on the Pod Delusion interview but, in short, Shelley explained how she had traveled across Australia to visit the stromatolites, life forms that evolved more than four billion years ago. These bacteria like creatures form rock like structures and emit bubbles of oxygen as the waste products from their metabolic activity. Shelley described her gratitude to these ancient life forms as, without them oxygenating the Earth’s atmosphere, we could never have evolved and have become human. Shelley continues by explaining that she’s also grateful to the scientists who, by explaining evolution and the role the stromatolites played, helped her to come to an understanding of the enormity of the natural history that has led us to singing songs in DC hotel rooms.
In “Gratitude” Shelley sings about loving life, loving the truth we gain from studying science and the gratitude she feels and, indeed, I feel about the same ideas. Shelley crafts a joyous celebration of gratitude while accepting the existential reality that, in the time of the universe, our lives are hardly a blip.
When I asked Shelley about her artistic influences, she said, of course, Ani DiFranco which I could hear when I first listened to the album. When I suggested that I heard some “punk” and maybe a bit of Patti Smith, Shelley smiled and said, “thank you.” As I turned 17 in 1977, I grew up with punk and think I hear it everywhere so, when Shelley took it as a compliment, I was glad that I wasn’t too far off base.
Shelley’s phrasing, especially on songs like “Afterlife” mix the female singer/songwriter genre with the assertive punk style of women like Patti Smith, Exene Cervenka and a bit of Lydia Lunch. She combines her own poetic lyrics with grace and sweetness while expressing her righteous indignation like a punk. This combination really works for me as a listener.
Shelley does more than represent my world view in her lyrics. Others do this too, George Hrab, for instance, writes songs about these topics but neither inspires me nor excites my sense of wonder. Certainly, rock and roll hall of fame, Canadian progressive rock power trio, Rush, has atheist anthems like “Tom Sawyer,” “Free Will” and “Faithless” but, like Hrab, Neil Peart’s lyrics seem to lack soul. Shelley’s lyrics have all of this. Her rhymes are rarely obvious, her poetic twists and turns compel one to listen and listen hard while, only once, hitting the listener over the metaphoric head with her words.
In 8 songs, I only have two big criticisms of Shelley’s writing. I can’t say that I like her song, “I Don’t Believe In Fairies” too much. It’s a list of silly things in which Shelley doesn’t believe. I don’t believe in fairies, vampires, talking snakes or the rest of the things she lists either but I think she could have been a lot more clever in her presentation of these notions. When I asked Shelley about this song, she replied with the same sentence Jello Biafra said to me when I interviewed him for “Overthrow” magazine back in 1983, she said, “Well, sometimes you need to hit listeners across the head.” and she does this in “Fairies” and, clearly, I prefer her more subtle, poetic other songs.
My only other complaint about Shelley’s writing is that she sometimes uses the word “lie” to mean “fiction.” I don’t think that religious people are “lying” to us when they recite their beliefs, I think they are presenting a fiction which they think is true. This is a subtle distinction but, to me, I consider a “lie” to be intentional but a “fiction” is something told from a sincere belief in what one is saying. Of course, finding a rhyme for “fiction” isn’t so easy and, in Shelley’s songs, I’ll accept that by “lie” she means fiction and I’ll remind my readers that I’m a bit of a pedant regarding words.
I recommend you go out and buy this album immediately. In fact, you should go out and buy it for your friends and family too. For me, Shelley Segal’s “An Atheist Album” is the best new thing I’ve heard this year and, if you enjoy punkish singer/songwriters, you will like this one too.
Please buy the album directly from Shelley’s web site, where you can hear it in its entirety before you buy it, so she can keep all of the money. The album is available from iTunes and all of the usual outlets but, if you’re buying for download, get it straight from Shelley so you aren’t paying Apple for the privilege of getting it from iTunes.