Eliza Gilkyson, Paradise Hotel (2005)

Singing Sharp Beauty into a Broken World

I am just a troubadour
a tried and true believer
if there’s nothing that I can live for
I don’t want to be here

[“Clever Disguise”]

The Hebrew Scriptures mark a moment that stretches so far back into the mists of history that it is easy to miss its significance. A mention of people long dead, but whose unfolding lives capture an evidence of God’s grace. The creation which danced into existence out of nothing at the word of the Creator was not a static thing, but was, instead, profoundly rich in possibility. Human beings in service to God could apply their God-imaged creativity to the world and find new things, develop new skills, and uncover new discoveries in a process that, millennia later, shows no sign of ever abating. Which, given the nature of the Creator, should not be a surprise. In any case, in the unfolding story told by Moses a man named Jubal is for all time remembered as “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” (Genesis 4:21). This text not only affirms the deep affinity human beings have for music, but that from the beginning a gift of music often seemed to reside in families, across succeeding generations.

Eliza Gilkyson continues the creative tradition. Her father, Terry Gilkyson, is a well-known songwriter (he wrote a #1 hit for Dean Martin & music for The Jungle Book), and her siblings are involved in music as well, a brother in punk rock and a sister in the music industry. Gilkyson has charted her own path, however, and brings a clear voice, crisp lyrics, a passion for justice, and an imagination keen on beauty to shape music that satisfies not as background noise, but as music of the heart.

Eliza Gilkyson’s 2005 album, Paradise Hotel, is superbly produced, each song unique and compelling in its own right, the entire collection fitting together to make a satisfying whole. In “Man of God,” she honors the long tradition in folk of raising a protest against what she and so many others around the world perceives as an unjust war.

the cowboy came from out of the west
with his snakeskin boots and his bulletproof vest
gang of goons and his big war chest
fortunate son he was doubly blessed
corporate cronies and the chiefs of staff
bowin’ to the image of the golden calf
startin up wars in the name of god’s son
gonna blow us all the way to kingdom come

man of god, man of god
that ain’t the teachings of a man of god

“The actions of this regime do not follow the teachings of Christ, what I call real Christianity,” Gilkyson said in an interview of the Bush administration. “I just don’t appreciate the religious right acting like I don’t love God and my country just because I’m not in their corner.” It’s important to note that the next song on the CD, “Jedidiah 1777,” takes us back to another war, the lyrics adapted from one of Gilkyson’s relatives who fought in and wrote from the front lines of the Civil War.

i rejoice that the cause we’re engaged in
is in the hands of an all-wise sovereign
who I doubt not is accomplishing
the ends of his desire
my love to you and the fair miss moore
spare me a bottle from the cellar store
and in my name let the contents pour

Gilkyson’s stance, whether you happen to agree or not, is not a mindlessly utopian anti-war dream, but an honest attempt to see the matter justly. Each song is performed with integrity, the music and instrumentation chosen with care to highlight the message.

Gilkyson sings of love disappointed (“Think About You”), the unfolding mystery that is life, and life after death (“When You Walk On”), falling in love (“Borderline”), and the possibility of hope while we’re “sailing cross the seas / pursuing sorry ships don’t know they’re sinking” (“Paradise Hotel”). Some CDs seem to sound basically the same from beginning to end, and albums with too much variation can feel like they were thrown together by the random output of a party shuffle. Paradise Hotel avoids both mistakes, revealing a lovely range of sound and performance without ever appearing to break apart.

Gilkyson has also recently released a live album, Your Town Tonight (2007), and in 2008, Beautiful World, which is a bit more stylized in feel, with something of a pop / jazz sensibility on top of her more traditional folk approach. Though Beautiful World is charming and is an album I return to frequently, it does not measure up to the brilliance, musicality, and balance of the earlier Paradise Hotel.

The high point of Paradise Hotel, both emotionally and musically, is “Requiem,” a song Gilkyson wrote after the tragic 2004 tsunami that ripped through the villages, families, and lives of so many people living along the coasts of the Indian Ocean. Though not a Roman Catholic herself, Gilkyson draws on the long tradition of Marian devotion to gain a sense of comfort and hope in the face of so much death and devastation.

mother mary, full of grace, awaken
all our homes are gone, our loved ones taken
taken by the sea
mother mary, calm our fears, have mercy
drowning in a sea of tears, have mercy
hear our mournful plea
our world has been shaken
we wander our homelands forsaken

in the dark night of the soul
bring some comfort to us all
oh mother mary come and carry us in your embrace
that our sorrows may be faced

mary, fill the glass to overflowing
illuminate the path where we are going
have mercy on us all
in funeral fires burning
each flame to your mystery returning

Sung with a poignancy formed by her own humanity, Gilkyson memorializes a so-called act of God with the grace of God, and thus sets it in a proper cosmic perspective.

Gilkyson honors the traditional folk tradition without becoming lost in the past. Like the best troubadours of old, she sees clearly enough that her songs can perhaps keep at the bay the complacency and cynicism that threatens to overwhelm our souls.