August 26, 2008
When Fallen Angels Fly
Patty Loveless returned from potentially career-ending throat surgery with the soulful Only What I Feel in 1993. Its follow-up album When Fallen Angels Fly, is a wonderfully-rendered collection that mastered the art of traditional country music with a contemporary edge. The emotions range from feisty to fragile and the tremendous vocal work of Loveless, combined with the brilliant musical stylings of husband-producer Emory Gordy Jr., make for one of Nashville’s proudest moments of the ‘90s.
The pair revitalize old sounds with their own brand of fiddle-and-steel barn-burners and slow-burning soulful ballads. Although the album fits well within the template of the mainstream format, it never compromises in its mission to keep alive the traditions of all that came before. Gordy, Jr.’s production is understated throughout, only in service of the song, providing just the right amount of country class. The steel guitar weeps gently, the drums keep a constant rhythm without overpowering, and of course, Loveless sings with a miles-deep alto that instills real meaning into each song, ballad or bouncing rocker.
Loveless can be lively, as shown on the Jim Lauderdale ditty, “Halfway Down.” And she also turns in a fun performance on the set’s first single, “I Try to Think About Elvis,” a comical look at new love’s powerful ways. But it’s the ballads that mark her greatest achievements. The centerpiece of the album is the ultimate in torch ballads, Tony Arata’s “Here I Am,” a tale of unreq
uited love told beautifully by the aching vocal of Loveless. Once she reaches the final chorus and confesses her undying devotion to the man who’s done her wrong, she’s as vulnerable as ever. The heartache is palpable, and very few country artists can put across this depth of emotion in such an stark manner.
Another devastating ballad, “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” comes from the pen of award-winning Gretchen Peters, and Loveless gives it a delicate reading. As a marriage unravels, both parties are feeling neglected and unneeded, and Loveless works her magic so that the listener would have a hard time taking sides between husband and wife. This same sympathetic treatment is put to good use on the other Peters contribution, the looking-for-love anthem “Ships.”
Admissions of weakness mark both the first and the final moments of this stellar collection. On the first track, “A Handful of Dust,” she acknowledges that without love, our worth is insignificant. And by the end, “Over My Shoulder,” a truthful acknowledgment of pain and the promise of a new day, Loveless wails with the knowledge that she owns no control over the pure torture of a broken heart. However, she also sees a redeeming light that’s “Heaven’s way” of saying she can let the past die.
That fact is the greatest lesson of When Fallen Angels Fly. It’s accentuated on the title track (Billy Joe Shaver’s creation), by a chorus so poetic that it’s perfect.
God will save His fallen angels
And their broken wings He'll mend
When He draws their hearts together
And they learn to love again
All their sins will be forgiven
In the twinkle of an eye
All the saints rejoice in heaven
When the fallen angels fly
The characters in these songs may struggle, strive in vain and stay haunted by old dreams and new desires, but the compassion and kindness in Loveless’ voice are a heart-wrenching, yet hopeful remedy. She has earned her place as a true ambassador of country music’s heart, both past and present.