Sunday, April 12, 2015

Light: One Headlight

Holly Figueroa O'Reilly: One Headlight (Wallflowers cover)
[from One, 2011]

I've been gone for a long, long time, and I probably won't be back again for a while: we've been struggling with the fallout from chronic illness in both my children for a few years now, and it makes my time short, and precious.

But as those of us who have been blogging since the form was born remember well, sometimes a theme speaks to you, or at least, calls something out of you. And I've been thinking about this song, and its album, a lot in the past few months, longing for an excuse to bring it back to the fore.

You see, Holly Figueroa O'Reilly has been gone for a while, too. As I wrote on my own all-covers, all-folk blog in 2011, the contemporary folk singer-songwriter lost her voice on stage at the Northwest Folklife Festival in 2009, twelve years, two Grammy nominations, and several major label offers into a blossoming and determinedly indie career. A visit to a specialist resulted in a diagnosis of both rheumatiod arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, a pair of inflamatory diseases which ultimately affected both her voice and her hands, keeping her from singing and playing the guitar for a year – a great loss for O’Reilly, and for the folk community.

Sadly, though drugs ultimately soothed and restored that voice for a while, O’Reilly’s clock was ticking; according to her own bio and facebook feed, the massive doses of steroids she was ingesting were doing as much damage to her body as the disease itself. And so O’Reilly made the impossible choice: to give up her voice in order to live without pain, for her family’s sake and for her own.

But first, she decided to record one final covers album.

In One, the covers record in question, O’Reilly is singing on borrowed time, and it shows: her voice changes subtly from track to track. But the songs are sweet nonetheless, and stunning, and poignant with her craft and talent as much as with her history. O’Reilly is strong, though she is clearly affected by her struggle and the ticking clock; all of this and more pours through even the most torn of tracks. And the song choices are inspired: every performance, from covers of REM, U2, Slipknot, Oasis, Paul Westerberg, Springsteen, Tom Petty and Joe Henry, speaks to a wellstorm of emotion, spoken clearly and eloquently, in an act of true song ownership.

Her cover of One Headlight, alone, dark and dirty with dobro, perfectly pitched in every tone, makes this quite possibly the best cover album of the year.

That these songs represent the second act in a final play, the last farewell to a life lived in voice, is not where their strength lies. It is, instead, in the power of the musician, working with a tenacious instrument, and other people’s songs, to maximum effect.

And nowhere is this more prescient than in a song which contains not one, but two metaphoric images of light: the titular headlight, which Jakob Dylan claims represents the murkiness and half-sufficiency of creation when all seems lost, the struggle to create despite hindrance and overwhelming despair...and the sun, coming up to illuminate first a funeral, and then a county line, each one a boundary beyond which mystery greets us all.

O'Reilly's voice like a last dying light in the darkness. Dylan's hope dying as his album struggles to come to fruition. My rapid drop-in, halfhearted and meek, cobbled from old features because I've lost the nerve, and the time. One headlight, barely enough, dangerous on the highway of breakneck life, as we chase the sunrise, our hearts equal parts dread and hope.

Boyhowdy joined this blog in its first year, and served as editor for several years before reluctantly leaving it behind in a fruitless attempt to pare his life down to its necessary essentials. He misses you all, and reads every post.

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