There is a phenomenon of the debut album. The theory is that many great artists have about oh…one great album in them, and that the process of developing into an artist is the gestation period that the one masterpiece in them needs to prepare for birth. This is obviously an oversimplification, which gives short shrift to the artistic process and to the ongoing accomplishments of many important artists. Yet, there does seem to be some abiding truth to the fact that some artists spend their early lives so deeply in visualization and preparation, that when the debut album does come out, it is an overwhelming and defining creative statement, containing the individuals’ most realized work. Such is the case with Phoebe Snow’s magnificent self-titled 1974 debut. She had a long and distinguished career with many highlights, yet she never seemed to transcend this first, fully-formed artistic statement.
Possessed of a voice that defies categorization or genre, she was equal parts Billie Holiday, Laura Nyro and Bessie Smith. Her tone is clear and perfect with a jazzy quaver, yet her performances are all deeply informed by the blues she loved so. Her writing produced heartfelt, poetic and intelligent songs of artistic ideation and lost love. Heartbreak is her constant companion, and would remain so for the rest of her life as she fought for the health of her daughter and eventually herself, in a career marked by tragedy and lost opportunity. And yet Phoebe Snow stands as one of the absolutely great first albums. There are no weak songs, including her two covers, “Let The Good Times Roll” and “San Francisco Bay Blues,” and the best of her originals – “Poetry Man,” “Harpo’s Blues,” “Either or Both,” “I Don’t Want The Night To End” and “Take Your Children Home” - succeed as poetry and song. Take for example “Harpo’s Blues,” her tribute to an early lover who died tragically. The lyrics are a beautifully sustained balance of reference and original thought:
I wish I was a soft refrain
When the lights were out
I’d play and be your friend
I strut and fret my hour
Upon the stage
The hour is up
I have to run and hide my rage
With her own substantial guitar chops and unearthly voice, she is accompanied by Zoot Sims, Bob James and others to create an unbelievably poignant and lovely recording. I don't usually buy into lists, but if I had to make a desert island compilation of songs, this one would be on it. It falls into a small category of gerascophobic songs, or songs about the fear of growing up. In the final verse she sings:
I'd like to be a willow, a lover, a mountain
or a soft refrain
But I'd hate to be a grownup
and have to try to bear
my life in pain
It's hard to put into words how strongly this song and this album affected me as a 17-year old, however the acid test here is that I find it even more affecting now. In fact, there has never been a time that I've listened to this album that I haven't come away with a deeper appreciation for the singer and her songs, and that is incredibly rare.
I don't think I'm alone in this, because “Poetry Man” was covered by many and remains a beloved folk/rock staple, however, because Phoebe Snow was forced to turn her back on fame, she has been forgotten by many and has been relegated to the historical back shelf. Her debut album is a stunner from start to finish combining a truly original voice, all the magic that professional recording studios and ace musicians of the era could bring, and a truly great set of songs, combining to make this one of the albums that built my emotional life and my store.
- Paul Epstein