Austin-based songwriter Eliza Gilkyson has charted the ever-changing aspects of the world around her -- inner and outer -- for the better part of 40 years with brutal honesty and a poet's gift for detail. The Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee has stubbornly stuck to finding her own path through the minefield of American popular music without paying it too much mind.
On Secularia, she delivers a series of "secular hymns" that try in vain to find answers to the unanswerable, without once mentioning a benevolent, comforting deity. Produced by her son Cisco Ryder, these songs, new and old, originals and covers, create and exist in a gorgeous tension that bravely assumes responsibility for being okay with her questions about the spiritual unknown. Perhaps that's because of the weight she places on the beauty and complexity of human nature. Gilkyson set to music two poems written by her grandmother Phoebe Hunter, including the opener, "Solitary Singer," where she posits the notion that "...But us poor folk who wake at night/When we're lonely we sing our best..." to fingerpicked electric guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and an upright bassline. She doesn't worry much about hope but finds gratitude and beauty in the way things are -- even if she'd desperately like to change them. "Lifelines," a gentle country-rock tune graced by pedal steel, slide, and electric guitars moves along a shuffling snare as she offers the hard truth that "...The center cannot hold...Order falls apart...there was nowhere left to run/Now it's time to do or die..." There is an ache in her vocal, but also a steely determination. "Conservation," the title of the other poem by her grandmother, is set to lilting, folk-country gospel and offers a manifesto for the entire set: "I have no god, no king or savior/No world beyond the setting sun/I'll give my thanks for one more day here/And go to ground when my time has come...." "Seculare," co-written with former Spirit bassist Mark Andes, is a sparsely orchestrated hymn of gratitude that resonates far beyond the confines of its four-and-a-half minutes. On "Sanctuary," she duets with pastor Sam Butler on what amounts to a glorious humanist prayer. Her lyrics reference a stalwart inner spirit that remains present no matter whether her protagonist is in love or in loneliness, in grief or desolation, in faith or in doubt. Her reading of "Down by the Riverside," a duet with the late Jimmy LaFave, reveals the victorious social and political truth in its lyrics. She closes with the piano and acoustic guitar ballad "Instrument," a confessional hymn of shortcomings sung to the impermanence of time itself: "I'm your unworthy instrument/Come strike my final tones/And blow your horn magnificent/through the hollows of my bones." On Secularia, Gilkyson manages to articulate what has remained -- to most of us -- inexpressible, hidden by our fear of forever, and has done so by willing vulnerability and accountability to become her gritty resolve.