Shellee Coley, Where It Began
Some albums — the best ones, generally — have personalities, just like people. Even though they may swing wildly between different styles, they’re tied together somehow by this overarching thread that runs throughout.
They step beyond, “hey, this isn’t bad,” to pull you along with them on their emotional journey, wherever it happens to lead, and by the time you reach the end, you’re sorry to see that journey’s at an end. Taking the CD out of the player feels like hanging up the phone with a friend, and when you listen again, even if it’s a decade later, it feels like you’re picking up right where you left off, right back to that trusty friendship.
Shellee Coley’s new full-length, Where It Began, is one of those albums, at least to me. I’ve never heard much of Coley’s music before now, but it all feels as warm and familiar as an old sweatshirt I’ve worn off-and-on since college. It feels like home, truly, despite the fact that Coley’s not singing about my life but hers.
The songs are gentle and playful and uncertain, the sound of a woman who’s looked around and realized her life isn’t where she thought it would be but is coming to terms with where it actually is, instead. “Same Old Lovers” is a great example of how Coley shows us a glimpse of that world (and it’s a high point for me, to boot), with Coley noting that last year was going to be their year, and the new year was supposed to make things new and wonderful, and yet, hey, here we are again, just the same two people facing one another, doing the same things.
It starts off dour and Aimee Mann-esque, surveying what appears to be the rut the pair are stuck in against their wishes, but by the song’s end, they’ve discovered that they’re still brand-new to one another, deep down.
That uncertainty’s on full display on “Still,” as well, with the old-school country song masking Coley’s deep-seated worry that one of these days the man she loves won’t want her anymore. It’s cheerful and smiling, but there’s a hint of that fear lurking in the background.
Opener “All I Want” is sad and fragile, with Coley asking her husband/lover/whoever to just be there with her and tell her everything’s going to be okay — nothing more than that — with the unspoken implication that in reality, it probably won’t be. The track shows Coley just barely holding herself together, vulnerable as hell, and it’s heartbreaking, making you wonder what horrible tragic thing she’s forced to deal with.
In almost the same breath, though, Ms. Coley shows there’s light in her life, as well, diving headfirst into “Bright Idea,” a bouncy, cheerfully yearning tune that veers close to cliché lyrically at a few points but still comes across as earnest and refreshingly open. Further on, “Green” is friendly and playful, the ultimate literal extension of the grass-is-greener adage, and it works surprisingly well.
In “Home to You,” too, Coley promises that no matter what, no matter which way things go, she’ll always be coming back again to where she belongs, all while those reassuring, confident, countryish guitars slide and jangle and the banjo picks along deftly. It’s an awesomely rural, backwoods-sounding song, one that’d serve nicely as the soundtrack for those long, lonely drives out on tour, and it’s great, great stuff.
I have to say, though, that the songs I love the most on Where It Began are the ones where Coley examines her relationship with her own children; sure, it’s probably because I’m a dad myself, but even stepping back from that, the heart-on-sleeve songwriting displayed here is incredible to behold. That’s the personality I mentioned back at the start, really, because when I listen to the album, what I hear first and foremost is the voice and heart of a parent, somebody who’s willing to take that love they feel for their children and put it into song.
Take “Cotton Dress,” for example, with its jaunty, almost Balkan-sounding/oompah stomp — it’s honest and beautiful, the story-song of a woman who grew up with music and now discovers that she can see the wonder of it unfolding to her own children, only to realize that this must’ve been how her parents felt watching her dance around the room, too.
Then there’s “Conversations with Z,” a quiet, matter-of-fact portrait of the love a mother feels for her child. As the father of a headstrong, quirky little girl myself, this one hits me dead-center in the chest; heck, the song feels like it could be written about my own family. I listen and feel that strange, indescribable warmth spreading through, and I catch myself staring at all those pictures hung on the office walls.
And it serves to remind me once again that no matter how my daughter behaves, good or bad, or whether or not I can understand how her strange little brain works, at the end of the day, she’s our little girl and nobody else’s, and that’s a wonderful, amazing thing. I’m not sure how you did that, Ms. Coley, but thank you for it all the same.
(Feature photo by Trish Badger.)