Let in the Light is that very place where Shannon Wright -- onetime punk rocker and now longtime singer/songwriter of sparse, emotionally loaded, simple productions -- arrives in a creative place she perhaps never imagined. The album is recorded by Andy Baker (Steve Albini has either moved on or been replaced), who is sensitive to Wright's lyrics and her aspirations toward a more expansive sound world that embraces rock, cabaret, folk, and whatever else she feels like folding into the mix. Baker also plays bass, and Wright also uses drummer Kyle Crabtree and violinist Amanda Kapousouz here. Despite the relative -- everything is relative, especially here -- density of her mix, Wright is more disciplined than ever. Her songs include the beautiful "St. Pete," where rock & roll guitars -- played by Wright, who also plays vibes and keyboards -- power chord their way through 5/8 time only to be interrupted dynamically by shimmering moments of elegant musical interludes. The opener, "Defy This Love," begins as a simple piano ditty that gives way to a song that owes a nod to Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. One can imagine this torch song being performed in front of a small crowd in a smoke-filled room in the early '30s. When the drum roll and electric guitar enter, the drama of the tune increases, and it becomes not a request, not a supplication, but a demand by the protagonist to look at the big picture and dare him to walk away. "Let in the Light" is as skeletal as it gets here, with Wright's electric guitar playing its own lyric line as she begins to offer her own voiced one. It's counterpoint that melds in beauty, not angularity. Its sadness is offset by the nursery rhyme melody that is deceptively sophisticated. Drums enter three-fourths of the way in, but by then this poetic look at love, admiration, and perhaps desperation is utterly moving and deeply haunting.
"Steadfast and True" glances once more toward the cabaret song, as Wright sings just atop her piano in triplets: "Come now/Won't you try/To forget...Steadfast and true/Gentle are few/When everything just slips away...So glad to see you smiling/On this/New morning/With me...." Snare drums enter the chorus and she plays knotty scales before reasserting the melody instrumentally. She's changing the shape and feel of the tune, making those drums follow her down the rabbit hole until she cancels them out with the bare-bones melody before whispering to a close. One of the great surprises here is the song "They'll Kill the Actor in the End" -- its piano-driven mortality theme, sounding like the ghost of a parlor song, is a reflection on the profundity and the necessity of inhabiting the present moment. Kapousouz's violin offers a texture that takes the song out of time and place. In Wright's world, there has always been a weight placed on dissolution, disappearance, disappointment, and grief. But there is hope here, too, and acceptance, and genuine love; nothing feels rooted in pure desperation. The final track is a beautiful pop/rock tune that comes right out of the Beatles' Abbey Road era. There's a vocal contained in echo, a piano, and a bass pattern that creates a space for the narrative that explodes into a bridge before the refrain comes floating down like a fine mist. It's sunny despite its seriousness. There's anger in it, too, but it's so elegant and multidimensional that it offsets the album's theme of ambivalence despite the nature of desire to "Let in the Light." She's trying, and as artfully as is possible. More complex and sophisticated than anything she's done so far -- both musically and lyrically -- this is Shannon Wright's crowning achievement, yet it feels like there is a whole new sound world opening to her even as this album draws abruptly to a close, as if there were another muse calling for her attention.