Grant-Lee Phillips considers world events on All That You Can Dream, his eleventh solo album, including the Notre Dame fire (Paris, 2019), the Capitol Riots (Washington, 2021), and the COVID-19 pandemic (2020 onwards). He says that it all “gets thrown into the blender”, and that “the only way that I know how to write is filtering whatever’s coming in from the outside from the social stimulus, and the direct personal stimulation of family and whatever’s going on internally”.
The nature of the album is such that a casual listener may not immediately understand that there’s an element of social commentary; the melodic tone means that All That You Can Dream sounds introspective (Phillip’s wife commented that the album is “dreamlike”, and feels “internal and personal”), with an element of Phillips taking stock of his life and work to date.
All That You Can Dream has lyrical and musical elegance. Phillips wrote and arranged the album’s songs on guitar or piano, adding a basic rhythmic and vocal framework. To expand the sound, he then enlisted a pair of trusted previous collaborators, the Los Angeles based bassist Jennifer Condos and drummer Jay Bellerose. “They were going stir-crazy themselves and welcomed the idea of a long-distance recording project,” Phillips says. Bellerose set up drums in his living room, Condos served as engineer, and the duo laid down rhythm tracks to songs Phillips had sent over, as if the three musicians were all in the same room. Phillips then layered additional textures himself (including Mellotron and pump organ) and worked with additional musicians as necessary to add further keyboards (Jamie Edwards’ piano on “A Sudden Place”, “Cut to the Ending”, and piano and Chamberlin on “My Eyes Have Seen”), pedal steel (Eric Heywood on “Remember This”) and cello (Richard Dodd on “A Sudden Place”). Phillips went on to mix and produce the album, with many nuances remaining in the final mix, “all the weird stuff that sometimes gets lost in the polishing stages of production”.
Phillips was previewing his upcoming album Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff on tour with John Doe and Kristin Hersh in 2020 when the world started to change dramatically due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Forced to cancel gigs and promotion, Phillips wrote All That You Can Dream at home in Nashville, taking his family out on drives in the Tennessee countryside. “Cruel Trick” replays this time of deserted landscapes, shop windows closed “like a Sunday/and people are scarce”. He confesses that the long drives and “signposts of nowhere” are “hard to bear”, missing “the feeling you get/when there’s somewhere to be”.
Phillip’s voice glides through the album with warmth and empathy, and the calm meditative nature of the music suits a concern for the world and human difficulty. “You Can’t Hide” poetically advises that “worries are just shadows/being cast by passing clouds/try to scoop them in your arms/just shadows on the ground”. The outstanding title track suggests hell is on earth, with the wheels of progress grinding and turning from dusk til dawn, but there is a strong sense of defiance (“refuse to lower your head/when the ones who abuse you/push you down”). Not everyone benefits from constant progress or growth, but the collective dream expressed in the chorus, reminiscent of Alan Vega/Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”, provides an element of hope which keeps us going. Phillips says that the song has a dual meaning – it considers the possibility of betterment or the inevitably of collapse, our choice between a world that’s hospitable or one that’s brutal, a struggle between the visionary and the cynical.
“Cannot Trust the Ground” takes comfort in the simple things in the face of destruction, but with anxiety for the next generation – “school begins/she’s got her face up on the screen/can’t imagine how it feels to be thirteen”. As the earth shakes, the singer struggles to “keep up with it all”. Similarly the world of “A Sudden Place” is turning at a thousand miles an hour, “and it never slows”; the reference to the Notre Dame fire reminds us that nothing is beyond ruin – “such interesting times /we say like a joke/reminds me, even Notre Dame/can go up in smoke”.
Occasionally there is barbed commentary underneath the beautiful melodies. “Cut to the Ending” doesn’t reference anyone by name, but the king who wants to hold onto power could well be the yellow-haired Donnie. The starkly solemn “My Eyes Have Seen” suggests the history books may hide the “shameful page” of the immigration policy during the Trump administration, “the mighty with our dogs and razor wire/a fence around the country where you live”. There’s an unruly mob in “Rats in a Barrel” – “a nickel would have got ‘em to clap/flash ‘em a grin, toss ‘em a cap” – which recalls the 2021 Capitol Riot as well as more historical turmoil: “Old Lincoln saw it all go down/almost looked like the first time ‘round”. “Peace Is a Delicate Thing”, which sounds like an outtake from Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born, tells of “wolves in the chamber/rage in their eyes/scandalous hours/the violence of lies/we’re all walking a razor’s edge tonight”.
Phillips is driven by the potential of making a connection, to “tap into the feelings that we share that are trapped beneath our skin”, more than simply highlighting or underlining the headlines of the day. He addresses this by making many of his songs universal – the collective human memory of hurt and oppression in “All by Heart” and the simple, enduring proclamation that “my love for you is real” in “Remember This”. All That You Can Dream may seem like an introspective record but don’t be fooled by the dreamy haze; it has a determined sense of purpose, gently reaching out to listeners in a troubled world.
Note: the artwork includes a painting by Phillips of a well-loved pair of headphones spray-painted silver which signifies the album’s “interior vibe” and Phillips’ meditative past few years
Label: Yep Roc
Release Date: 20 MAY 22