It’s been a quick 22 years since Madeleine Peyroux’s breakthrough with Dreamland and ten years since her last album of original songs. Yet, Anthem stands as Peyroux’s greatest work to date. She certainly harnessed plenty of talent for this collaborative effort, involving a team of five writers and 18 participating musicians. This is a challenging album that moves in and out of the confines (if there are any) of jazz into uncharted contemporary territory where few would dare to venture. Peyroux, though, has rather limitless curiosity, always rises to daunting challenges, and delivers in her singular voice, which is undeniably beautiful, not at all powerful, but remarkably effective due to her unique phrasing.
Her team of writers have worked with the best – Patrick Warren (Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen), Brain MacLeod Leonard Cohen, Tina Turner), David Baerwald (Joni Mitchell, Sheryl Crow) and producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, Herbie Hancock). They are all basically the rhythm section player on the album too. Together they cast a sober, poetic, and provocative point of view on the current state of our times.
The album gestated during the 2016 US elections and ultimately fused political outlooks with personal takes that are at times bleak or compassionate. There’s a dark bitterness threading through many of the songs but hope and resilience emerge too. They were a team huddled in one room, ruminating over a stream of news (fake and real) that sparked personal experiences, and hence more ideas. Let’s face it; we’ve endured many troubling issues and events recently. This team finds very creative ways to express reactions to them
David Baerwald’s mourning over the passing of poet John Ashberry was the catalyst for “All My Heroes” where he tempers admirable qualities (‘light fires in the shadows”) with their vulnerabilities and frailties. “Lullaby,” written by all five, was inspired by the image of a solitary woman in the midst of a wide open sea singing to her child as she’s in a boat facing the unknown against a backdrop of a haunting, mysterious musical score. It’s difficult to imagine anyone but Peyroux pulling this off.
Most of it is not preachy stuff. Many of the messages are delivered through lyrical imagery and metaphors. “Down on Me” is a lament over financial tribulations. “Ghosts of Tomorrow” speaks to unfulfilled dreams. Even tunes like “Party Tyme, “On a Sunday Afternoon” and “Might As Well Dance” seem somewhat light on the surface but there’s plenty of darkness and resignation in the lyrics. On the other hand, “The Brand New Deal” is as hard hitting as a Gil Scott-Heron piece with its ending scathing litany aimed directly at POTUS 45 – “commodification, consumerization, deregulation, privatization, objectification, sexualization, rationalization, overcompensation, disinformation, discrimination, under-education, de facto segregation, homogenization, criminalization, desensitization, mass incarceration.”
The album takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s tune that Peyroux says is becoming her own personal anthem, tying together all the stories and themes on the record. Cohen’s ability to “make you think about things without forcing you into it” became the major thread for the project. Sometimes fewer words are better than an endless string of details. Another key track of the album is Paul Eluard’s poem “Liberté” which came about by a friend requesting that Peyroux contribute a song to the documentary On the Tips of One’s Toes dealing with a family grappling with their son’s fatal illness. It’s well-known poem in France and was recently set to music by French rocker Marc Lavoine. The 21 verse poem was edited, and its stanzas adapted before Peyroux and Klein wrote their original composition. It addresses the entire human experience from childhood to adulthood, illness, death and recovery. Accompanied only by Klein’s acoustic guitar and Warren’s ethereal synth strings, Peyroux delivers it in her mesmerizing style.
Given the many musical passages, not the mention the thoughtful writing, it’s evident that Peyroux and team invested tons of time in the studio. She says, ‘this album was about discovering the original songs as they were being recorded” and to “let the songs choose their own path.” Usually committee decisions don’t work but this is a stunning example of collaboration producing an uncategorizable, enduring work of art.