Looking back over the countless thousands of hours I've spent listening to music, it's depressing to reflect on how many of them were wasted, usually for professional reasons, on utter crap — late-period Uriah Heep, let's say, or the lesser efforts of Lydia Lunch, or any album devoted exclusively to the tedious lowings of Tuvan throat singers. How much richer might life have been had those irretrievable clumps of time been expended instead on actual artists, people with something to say? I might have stumbled upon Amy Rigby long before now.
Am I the last to get the word on this gifted person? Probably not, given her low commercial profile. Still, it's a little embarrassing. I came across 18 Again, a sort of greatest should-be-hits compilation, just the other day. After sampling a few tracks, I downloaded the whole thing. Then I listened to it a couple of times, and then I went back and downloaded the rest of the albums available here. This was hard-drive space wisely surrendered.
I imagine that many people who've only heard of Rigby, like myself, may have filed her away in the mental bin of Yet Another Singer-Songwriter. What a useless term. John Lennon was a songwriter who sang; but then back in his day so were such dweebs as Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert O'Sullivan and the ghastly Leo Sayer. Rigby is on a level all her own. She has a fierce lyrical gift and a happily matched melodic knack, and her songs are so directly expressive of her own life that it's hard to imagine anyone else singing them (although she has been covered). That she isn't better known is inexplicable, because in soldiering through the past 20 years or so — through a couple of bands, and then through marriage, divorce, single-motherhood and six indie studio albums — she's never lost her obstinate artistic determination, which appears to operate independently of any hankering after mainstream fame. Which means she's never gone soft.
She's found her great subject, too, which is growing older as a woman. Her musical aspirations apparently took shape during her art-school days in New York in the late '70s, hanging around the CBGB punk scene, and her work has the unyielding stance, if not always the standard form, of rock & roll. There are elements of folk-rock, riff-rock and vintage Brill Building girl-group pop (check out the terrific "All I Want"). But wisps of simple guitar-strummery also float past, and there's one hilarious sortie into cocktail balladry, too. Even in what might seem to be gentler moments, though, Rigby's lyrics combine heartbreak and sarcasm in a seamless weave that can bring you up short. In the whispery "Keep It to Yourself," for example, she's just told a new boyfriend about an ex who broke her heart. The new guy, with a righteous indignation he no doubt hopes will demonstrate his superior commitment skills, professes a desire to murder this departed clod. No, no, she says, don't be silly. However:
Here's his address, here's his picture
Here's the make and model of his car
He works until 4:30, then he hangs out at the topless bar
With a girl on each arm.
Given the number of such losers who pass through her songs, I think we can assume that this new guy turned out to be a clod, too. Undiminished lust being what it is, however, she keeps groping for at least a carnal connection, and hoping the next man may turn out to be Mr. Not Too Awful. In the headlong "If You Won't Hang Around," she makes yet another (possibly intoxicated) move:
How'm I gonna kiss you, how'm I gonna thank you
I don't wanna miss you, I just wanna spank you
How'm I gonna do ya, I can't give it to ya
If you won't hang around
But the quest for erotic fulfillment grows more complicated with passing years, as she realizes, in a song called "Invisible," that the hot guys she once bedazzled are no longer checking her out:
I walked into a bar, now what was I thinking?
Nobody asked me, "Honey, what are you drinking?"
Since I hit 35, what I want I gotta buy
Although she's way jaded by now, she knows she'll never give up hoping for love, or something like it. But in baring her scuffed soul to a new romantic candidate, she's mordantly frank about the fact that neither her standards nor her expectations are what they once were. Now, in "Cynically Yours," she's willing to settle:
The thought of being with you doesn't fill me with dread
I can picture being with you till one or both of us is dead…
In a world full of doubt, don't know what I'm sure about
But you don't suck, so I'm cynically yours
Rigby is one of those few-and-far-between artists (a word that's tossed around much too promiscuously in the music business) in whose work one finds no bum numbers, no songs tossed off just to fill out an album. (In this regard she has been compared elsewhere to Richard Thompson, and as a Thompson fan I have to agree.) Along with her solid melodic sense, she has a distinctively expressive voice (it ranges from a confiding sigh to a lovable yelp) that perfectly conveys her complex lyrical concerns. I can't think of anyone to compare her to, so I guess I'd have to say she's incomparable. In fact, there: I just said it.