Nobody’s Angel. Nanci Griffith’s “Flyer”

PAUL ROSENBERG
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This album is of songs that came internally from my life with no delays or fiction. They are of immediate reaction and inspiration. It wasn’t a conscious effort to write of my own self and time… it just happened”.

-Nanci Griffith, from the liner notes to Flyer

There are some albums I can think of that seem to stand alone, even among their authors’ unquestionably high-quality catalogue, albums that represent both artistic and personal breakthroughs in already remarkable careers. Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark is one such album, and Steely Dan’s Aja another good example. Nanci Griffith’s Flyer, which was released thirty years ago in 1994, is one of those albums too, an introspective masterwork by a writer whose claim to fame was deeply emotional portraits and love songs about others.

In 1994 I had recently become a very big Nanci Griffith fan. Among her many great records, her live album, One Fair Summer Evening, had a huge impact on me. The raw emotional power of her performances, stripped of the Nashville production, was singular, wonderful, and her songs were gorgeous and playable. At that time my wife and I performed as a duo, and Nanci was top of the list among the artists we loved to cover.

That summer, we were driving into the NC mountains with the radio tuned in to WNCW, the excellent public radio station in Asheville that featured a remarkable depth of acoustic programming. That day the DJ said that Nanci Griffith had just released a new album called Flyer, and that he was going to play it in its entirety.

The experience of listening to the album for the first time that ensued, and Flyer itself, had an immediate and deep impact on me as a musician and producer. It is a very special recording, dense with instruments, vocal layering and harmonies, masterfully mixed and balanced, and featuring guest performers such as Pete Buck, Frank Christian, Adam Duritz, Mark Knopfler Tony Levin, Jerry Marotta, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton (U2), Amy Ray and Emily Saliers (Indigo Girls), The Chieftains… and others.

This supreme musical achievement, however, is only the backdrop for the extraordinary impact of Nanci Griffith’s lyrics and her unique, deeply personal and emotional singing, which comes through more brilliantly than ever before on Flyer, a journey of deep longing, heartache, and reckoning with loneliness and lost chances for love. The opening song, also entitled Flyer, sees Nanci stranded at the airport with an Air Force pilot, both headed in different directions. Her sense of loss and regret come through immediately:

He said he’d never married

Because his heart was in the clouds

And I said I was too clumsy

That I broke the wings of the loves I found

Flyer sees Griffith turn her peerless spotlight into human emotion and relationships on herself, for the first time in over a decade of writing songs like Last of the True Believers, Love at the Five and Dime, Gulf Coast Highway and Outbound Plane. Here we travel with Nanci through airports, on trains and in cars, amongst “hotel rooms and headlights” and her own memories and emotions, at the very height of her expressive powers and backed by the most extraordinary band and guests ever to appear on any of her releases. It’s a once in a career achievement, and one of the most lovely, heartfelt, and just plain wonderful albums I know of.  

What follows are a few highlights from the album, with a few comments. The songs more than speak for themselves. I still love these songs and this album – and Nanci – as much as ever, and on the thirty-year anniversary of Flyer, I wanted to share it with you.

Nobody’s Angel

Griffith seems to be wrestling with her own broken heart and loneliness in Nobody’s Angel – and arguably also throughout much of the album. Still, in an album of very personal songs, this one sets a clearly autobiographical tone, with a stunning self-description:

I was the forest for love songs

The one who can’t love wrong

The one who won’t fall

But will still write it down

I’m the one who would understand

Who listens with pen in hand

Everyone’s shoulder

Till its me who falls down

Say It Isn’t So

Songwriter Harlan Howard was known for writing some of the greatest country heartache songs ever (including co-writing the famous I Fall to Pieces, recorded by Patsy Cline), for example, Never Mind, exquisitely covered by Nanci on her Little Love Affairs album. Here the two write together, and the results are, well, heartrendingly beautiful. Listen to the heartbreak in the way she sings “oh, if you ever did”, or the last “oh baby, just say it isn’t so”.

It’s just a lover’s situation

Are you in or out of love?

I’ve heard those words before

Had to face up to the truth

Because staying and pretending would have hurt him more

The overall effect of the musical arrangement is so gorgeous – the guitars! – that it almost makes you forget the song is about heartache.

Don’t Forget About Me

This is an irresistible, heartfelt song about being a friend when times are bad. I have a particular affection for songs that express some type of kindness or empathy, and Nanci Griffith has written some of the best I’ve ever found. With Mark Knopfler on guitar (instantly recognizable) and the rhythm section from U2, it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.

Friends never leave you

They’re a two way street

They’ll always believe in you

When you’ve ceased to believe

And they’ll still feel the same

When you’re a friend in need

Southbound Train

“The towns and cities flutter past like the pages of my life”

Penned by songwriter Julie Gold (of From A Distance fame), this song’s lyrical imagery and storytelling are simple and powerful, as is the stark musical arrangement. The heartbroken singer, riding on a train with a stranger sleeping on her shoulder, thinking back on her life in a swirl of emotions, poignantly and honestly declares,

some things I know

some things I guess

some things I wish that I could learn

to express

Like the way that I feel when I stare at the sky

And I remember your voice

And the sound of goodbye

These Days In An Open Book

To me this is one of the most wonderful songs ever recorded by anyone, in every way. There are so many instruments… from a mixing a production point of view alone this is a masterwork. But once again that’s just a backdrop for a song so beautiful, and so deeply personal that during the recording sessions Griffith found she was unable to sing the harmony parts herself, a task for which she recruited The Indigo Girls, who turn a truly angelic performance.

This song also includes one of the most incisive lines she ever wrote: “the price of love is such a heavy toll”

I can’t remember where this toll road goes

Maybe it’s to Fort Worth maybe it’s a heart of gold

The price of love is such a heavy toll

That I’ve lived my life in the back roads

With your love in my pocket

If I spend the love you gave me, tell me where will it go?

There are so many more songs on Flyer, all worth discovering, and the journey ends at home, with Nanci alone, and once again thinking back, leaving us with an exquisite sense of her reflection on herself, her longing for love, and the extraordinary skill she had for turning those feelings into words.

Flippin’ bottle caps through the ring around

The moon

All alone on a Saturday night with the stars in bloom

I am a vision of my mother’s dream come true

Built this house out in the hills

All by my own will

I’ve got love enough for two

But it’s just me and this old moon

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Nobody’s Angel. Nanci Griffith’s “Flyer” ultima modifica: 2024-06-09T13:35:09+02:00 da PAUL ROSENBERG
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