Welcome to the sounds and poetry of recovery and redemption. On Beth Hart's third album in six years, the singer/songwriter has taken her already lean, rootsy approach to writing, scaled it back to skillfully reflect what is essential in a song, and then, as is her trademark, poured the very grain of her being into each performance. On Leave the Light On, Hart speaks through unapologetically classic, mainstream rock music so gritty, edgy, and true (informed by the gospels according to the Rolling Stones, the Faces, and Janis Joplin), it's virtually unlike anything out there at the moment -- the White Stripes not withstanding. "Lifts You Up," the opener, uses one of the finest anthemic R-A-W-K hooks in a chorus since Delaney & Bonnie, employing muddy ringing buzzsaw guitars, upright piano, bass, drums, and hand percussion to celebrate the notion of life on life's terms: "It lifts you up it puts you down/Then it feeds you life, then it lets you drown/While it holds your heart then it slowly tears you/And you know life is what I mean." The title track is the first real power ballad of the new century. It is the most searing cut on the set. Virtually every word is loaded with dark confession and emotion, but unlike some of her peers who also explore the sewers and gutters of human ruination and soul death, Hart is far from content to remain there. Buoyed by her own piano, assorted keyboards emulating strings, Greg Leisz's pedals, strummed guitars, and a rhythm section, Hart's words seek the edges of the cage and bust forth, counting on the possibility of change inherent in every moment. The lyrics, centered around the fear of being alone after a life of pain -- absorbed and meted out -- are scalding in their indomitable hope.
These two tracks become the first turns of the wheel of pop culture dharma -- rock & roll is the means to convey the fact that these small truths have become self-evident: that a woman can survive, sometimes in spite of her best efforts. Where more "contemporary" architectures are used, on "Lay Your Hands on Me" with its drum loops, "World Without You" with its beautifully textured keyboards, or the stunning acoustic piano majesty of "Lifetime" backed by a whispering Hammond organ, the effect is the same. Songs that take no prisoners, such as "Bottle of Jesus" or "Broken & Ugly," with fierce melodies and burning guitar crunchiness, are welcome alternatives to the tuneless radio drivel of Limp Bizkit or Korn. Ultimately, Leave the Light On is indeed Hart's crowning achievement thus far. Not many can string three fine albums together, let alone make each better than the last. This too is part of a rock & roll heritage that Hart, one suspects, is proudly a part of: the process of artistic growth realized over time, one that seeks the long road rather than short gain. Ultimately, as Beth Hart continues to allow her muse to inform and transform the ashes of her past, the listener benefits mightily from her journey. No matter what happens commercially or critically, this album will sound necessary and vital a decade from now. Classic rock indeed.