Popdose Flashback: Shawn Colvin, “Steady On”

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '89

Our yearlong flashback to 1989 continues with Jon Cummings’ reappraisal of Shawn Colvin’s Steady On.

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By the time Shawn Colvin signed with Columbia Records in 1988, she was a beloved figure at folk-music clubs around the nation – and particularly on the East Coast, from the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., to Club Passim in Cambridge. She had been kicking around the scene for years, first fronting rock bands during the ’70s and then emerging (along with her friend Suzanne Vega) as perhaps the quintessential Girls With Guitars for the ’80s. She usually (though not always) toured without a band, and she got her piercing songs across with nothing more than her emotive alto and the astounding colorations she coaxed from her acoustic instrument.

Shawn Colvin circa 1988 -- photo by Robert CorwinThe cassette Colvin sold at her gigs while she was still an unsigned artist – which she creatively titled Live Tape — had become something of a sensation, as soundboard recordings sold at folk clubs go. It showcased a fully formed artist with a trove of terrific songs, and it got passed around so much that its audience far surpassed the number of people who had actually seen her perform. (I obtained a copy of it from a friend a couple months before attending my first Colvin concert, an opening slot for k.d. lang at the Birchmere during the summer of ’88.) Her ascension to major-label status was clearly just a matter of time, and the folk community was understandably thrilled when reports surfaced that she had signed a contract and headed into the studio with her boyfriend, John Leventhal, producing.

They weren’t quite prepared for the album that would emerge in October ’89.

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The first few seconds of the opening title track announced to her cult of longtime fans that Colvin had no intention of being bound to acoustic-folk strictures. Michael Blair’s percussion and T-Bone Wolk’s percolating bass right away marked “Steady On” as a pop-rock song – and a terrific one at that, a track that could (and would) succeed both at Adult Contemporary and Modern Rock radio. Lyrically, its promise (to herself) — to “keep [her] head on straight” through “the nuclear winter of another love affair” – served as perhaps the ideal calling card for an artist who was (and remains to this day) intent on baring her emotional scars through her music.

“Steady On” was a relatively recent composition; the five tracks that followed it, on the other hand, had long been the backbone of her live repertoire. “Diamond in the Rough” and “Shotgun Down the Avalanche,” in particular, are extraordinary songs. The former is a meditation on what’s lost as childhood turns to adulthood – not so much innocence as naïve confidence, that sense of infallibility that disappears as grown-up concerns and responsibilities take hold. The latter is a brilliantly metaphorical breakup song, about the psychic free-fall of a love gone wrong.

Leventhal’s work on these tracks is masterful; he creates open and dynamic landscapes to surround Colvin’s vocals, which are themselves marvels of phrasing and timbre. And yet it was this pair of recordings, more than any of the other tracks on Steady On, that fomented dissatisfaction among many longtime fans who believed that Colvin’s strength was in the simplicity of that Girl With Guitar format in which they first grew to love her. To understand what they were getting at, consider the differences (if you haven’t before) between her solo-acoustic performances of “Diamond” and “Shotgun,” taken from the Live ’88 CD, and their counterparts from Steady On.

Diamond in the Rough (from Live ’88)
Diamond in the Rough (from Steady On)
Shotgun Down the Avalanche (from Live ’88)
Shotgun Down the Avalanche (from Steady On)

Listening to both versions of each song, what’s most remarkable is how successful she is in both contexts — despite the fact that she and Leventhal have done considerably more than dress up the acoustic arrangements with additional instruments. Still, even as she obviously reveled in the sonic opportunities provided by the full-band arrangements on Steady On (and its 1992 follow-up, Fat City), Colvin not-so-secretly shared her fans’ desire that she record acoustically – and eventually she made good on that desire as she drew on her extensive repertoire of cover songs for 1994’s collection Cover Girl (and, the following year, released an augmented version of her old Live Tape as Live ’88).

Shawn Colvin onstage in 1988 -- photo by Jim NeillThose three opening tracks from Steady On still stand tall among Colvin’s finest achievements, but the rest of the album maintains a remarkably high standard of quality. “Another Long One” gets a considerably brighter treatment on record than she had previously given it in concert, while “Stranded” and “Cry Like an Angel” offer plaintive takes on Colvin’s lyrical obsessions. “Dead of the Night” is a dramatic closer, thanks to a stately wash of keyboards and a crystalline vocal that shifts moods and shows off Colvin’s impressive range.

After all these years, though, the track I remember most fondly is “Ricochet in Time.” It’s hardly an original lyrical conceit, the whole weary-troubadour thing – but there’s something in the lightness of Colvin’s vocal and the subtlety of Rick Marrotta’s drumming that gets me every time. “I wanted to know if dreams would lie,” she sings. “You said they would try, and I said, ‘Let them – just let them.’” It’s that resilience in the face of past – and future – disappointments that seemed so revelatory in its maturity, particularly for a debut album.

Steady On was not a huge commercial success, but it immediately placed Colvin in a category not only with contemporaries like Vega, Tracy Chapman and the Indigo Girls, but with the leading ladies of singer/songwriter pop – Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Judee Sill. From the moment of its release the album was the prohibitive favorite for the Grammy Award as Best Contemporary Folk Recording, and her win signaled a wave of industry recognition that would escalate into a Female Pop Vocal nomination in ’93 for “I Don’t Know Why,” from Fat City, and culminate in her stunning dual wins for “Sunny Came Home” as Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1998.

Such pop success for a folk-based artist was surprising during the ’90s, but Colvin had already pulled off an equally nifty trick with Steady On – releasing a debut album that seemed like a bolt from the blue to those who were hearing her for the first time, while simultaneously defying the expectations of those who already knew her from the club circuit. It was quite an accomplishment – but so was everything else about Steady On.

Purchase Steady On from Amazon.