Album Review: Chely Wright, Lifted Off the Ground

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May 16, 2010

Chely Wright
Lifted Off the Ground

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but oftentimes, the most intriguing albums come from extreme adversity. Such is the case for Chely Wright, whose finest project to date is her latest album, Lifted off the Ground, which comes from a long period of deep depression and subsequent painful self-examination of where she fits in the world. Masterfully produced by Rodney Crowell, the album is mostly a reflection of Wright’s darkest times of tumult, which naturally results in an album of varied emotions.

To set the tone for the project, the album opens with the slow-burning “Broken”, a resignation of lovers who can’t open themselves up enough to let the other person in. “Damn Liar” is an aggressive condemnation to, you guessed it, a no-good liar, while “Like Me” wistfully (and possibly controversially) contemplates the future of a close friend, “Who’s gonna end up holding your hand? / A beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man?” The most clever song on a very solid album, however, is the quirky “Notes to the Coroner”, wherein the protagonist points to her in-depth diary as her notes to the coroner on what caused her death, which simply happens to be a broken heart.

It’s not mainstream country music like she once did, but rather, more folk-tinged with a bit of tasteful pop influence sprinkled throughout, which will likely feel more comfortable with the Americana crowd. As a result, Rodney Crowell’s sympathetic production expertly supports Wright’s clear voice with a crisp, yet soft, foundation. Moreover, by pouring her heart and unfiltered thoughts into this album, we are treated to an introspective collection of songs with unique and accessible melodies and, more importantly, intelligent insights.


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  1. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar says:

    Leeann – How do you review Chely Wright’s new album and not mention that she came out as a lesbian? It’s the raison d’être for the album. It would be like not mentioning Natalie Maines’s comment about George Bush in a review of Taking The Long Way. No point in euphemisms like “deep depression and subsequent painful self-examination” and “darkest times of tumult”. She came out, she is marketing an album on the basis of coming out, and it’s worth mentioning explicitly.

  2. [...] Country Universe – A Country Music Blog » Album Review: Chely …Such is the case for Chely Wright whose finest project to date is her latest album, Lifted off the Ground, which comes from a long period of deep depression and subsequent painful self-examination of where she fits in the world. …Read more [...]

  3. DanielNo Gravatar says:

    I thought her memior was the reason for coming out and not the album. When you listen to the album it should be open to your own reflection and not just an imprint of the artist.

    The memoir on the other hand is a direct reflction of the experiences and rememberances of the author.

  4. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Treacle,
    You make a valid point and I debated on which way I should go on that. I made a conscious decision not to mention it in the review, however, for the reason that Daniel stated and I also figured it would be mentioned in the comments (And I even predicted that you’d be the one to do it.).:) Maybe I should have mentioned it, but I wanted the review to focus more on the album than the big announcement and I didn’t want to appear as though I was sensationalizing things. I may have made the wrong choice, but it is what it is, I guess.

  5. BobNo Gravatar says:

    I think Leeann made the right choice not mentioning the issue of Chely’s sexuality, just as she would have been correct not to mention it if Chely had changed her religion or political affiliation. Let’s stick to the music. I don’t care what drove her to choose a particular song for her album or write the song (if she did), if it doesn’t resonate with me in some way, I’m not buying it no matter how much I may sympathize with her personal issues.

  6. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    And the thing is, I don’t think the coming out permeates the album very obviously anyway. If she hadn’t come out, the album itself would give us few blatant indications (besides “Like Me”) of her sexuality. I think the coming out is really just the most headline-grabbing aspect of Chely’s exit from the depression/”times of tumult” Leeann mentions.

    Of course, a lengthier review might call for deeper examination into that context, which would inevitably mean mentioning her coming out. But since this is a concise review, I think it’s appropriate that it focuses on the music and doesn’t delve too much into context.

  7. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I should say that this review was initially written for something bigger, one part of a group of short reviews, but the situation changed and it ended up being posted as its own review. With what I thought to be limited space at the time, I had to make several concessions. In the end, I think it’s probably for the better, to keep me from rambling as much as I might have without the constraint.

  8. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar says:

    I’m all for brevity, but I think brevity would have been better served by just stating bluntly that Chely Wright’s new album is the result of her decision to come out as a lesbian in the country music industry. Because it is. And she’s said as much.

    Honestly, when gay people do something that has to do with being gay, they don’t care if you take notice of that fact.

  9. Dan MillikenNo Gravatar says:

    Her album was in the works long before she decided to come out – which is reflected, again, in how very few of the songs seem to refer to that decision or her sexuality in general. Obviously she timed the announcement to coincide with the book and album releases, but that doesn’t inherently make the album her “gay album” or anything. To say it does is pretty reductive of her art.

  10. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t think the album is a result of her coming out as a lesbian though. In an interview I read, I believe she said that she would have made the same album whether or not she had decided to come out.

    In the Entertainment Weekly interview she says as much:

    If you hadn’t decided to be true with people about who you are, could you have put out another album?
    Yes.

    Would it have been any good?
    It would have been this album. It wouldn’t have had “Like Me” on it. I know what it looks like from the outside. It appears that I decided to come out and wrote an album about being gay, right?

    http://music-mix.ew.com/2010/05/05/chely-wright-comes-out-qa/

    Also, anyone who read country music blogs knew that she was gay by the time they read this review. They, however, may not have known if the album was any good.

    Finally, you say, “Honestly, when gay people do something that has to do with being gay, they don’t care if you take notice of that fact.”

    This is irrelevant to my review.I did not review Chely’s publicist’s talking points before reviewing the album. The purpose of Country Universe, above all, is to talk about the music. While there would have been nothing wrong with mentioning her coming out, I still don’t believe it was necessary. This album can stand up on its own without any sensationalism.

  11. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    I didn’t see Dan’s comment before posting mine. But ditto.

  12. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar says:

    Ditto Leeann and Dan. Focusing on Wright’s personal life during an album review would be inconsistent with the general rules of Country Universe. Since you brought up the Chicks, when I’ve written about Taking the Long Way, I’ve barely eluded to the political context of the record for the same reason. It’s just not how we do things.

    My apologies to Leeann. I was supposed to have a Court Yard Hounds review to go with her Chely Wright review. Maybe I’ll finally get it on the site tomorrow!

  13. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar says:

    “This album can stand up on its own without any sensationalism.”

    What sensationalism? Chely Wright explicitly put her homosexuality front and center in the production and marketing of this album. She’s making a point – a good point. And you talked around it, Leeann, without actually saying it. It’s o.k. to say this album is by a lesbian country artist and it’s about her telling us she’s a lesbian. Because that’s exactly what Chely Wright is saying. And I think that’s good. Her next album will be about Chely Wright, the country singer who happens to be a lesbian. This album is not that.

  14. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Treacle,
    I can’t help but feel defensive by what I take as you accusing me of being purposefully irresponsible, but there’s no use arguing with you about it. I’ll just say this: I’ve expressed my support of Wright’s decision to come out and even her timing elsewhere. I didn’t think that it needed to be overtly included in my review here.

    I’m relatively certain that Chely Wright would not be offended by the fact that I gave her album (her art) a very positive review without mentioning that she is gay.

  15. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Btw, I absolutely disagree that this album is about her telling us that she’s a lesbian. Her book, maybe (though I haven’t read it), but not this album. If I’m wrong, by all means, please quote song lyrics from the album to support your projection of what I should have written.

  16. JosephNo Gravatar says:

    This might be beating a dead horse, but I agree that Lifted Off the Ground stands on its own and is a strong artistic statement regardless of whether the listener knows about Chely’s revelation.

    And I’ve worked in Nashville the past two summers, and many of the people in the industry have known about her sexual orientation for quite some time, so I don’t think she needed to make an album to build up the courage to reveal something a bunch of people already knew. Additionally, she previewed “Damn Liar” on myspace or somewhere online a couple of years ago, totally removed from the album’s context or news about her sexuality. So, while there are moments on the album that allude to her announcement, the vast majority of album makes no mention of it. Thus, I think it’s vastly overreaching to say that this album is about “telling us she’s a lesbian.”

    And echoing the sentiments above, I totally agree with Country Universe’s standard of not focusing on the controversial personal lives of the artists in question. Great review Leann!

  17. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar says:

    Leeann: “I absolutely disagree that this album is about her telling us that she’s a lesbian. . . . If I’m wrong, by all means, please quote song lyrics.”

    From “Like Me”: “You’re complex and tricky / yet some ways you’re not. / You’re up some and down some / you’re cold and you’re hot / Who’s gonna end up holding your hand? / A beautiful woman or a tall handsome man? . . . Will anyone ever know you like me?”

    Me: She’s playing on opposites here – complex vs. simple; up vs. down; cold vs. hot; woman vs. man. And the double question at the end is the killer. She’s asking “Will anyone ever know you like I know you” and she’s asking “Will anyone ever know that you like me”. For some folks, that’s a pretty scary question. But I 100% get what she means. And it’s a hell of a clever line.

    Joseph: “I totally agree with Country Universe’s standard of not focusing on the controversial personal lives”

    Me: There’s nothing controversial about Chely Wright’s personal life. It is what it is.

  18. chesnuttisNo Gravatar says:

    Chely’s lesbianism and coming out is far more interesting and socially important than anything on this record. The fact that a country “star” has come out to the public is a very big deal. I have a question though: has any big country star (one who can actually sell records) said anything in public or through the media in support of Chely Wright? I haven’t heard of one saying anything and that is a bit sad to me. Its a shame to me that country music has people who think like John Rich in it. I know Chely Wright isn’t exactly an important singer or person but some support would be helpful so that maybe in the future a singer who matters a bit more could come out.

  19. Paul DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I’ve always like Chely’s music (still do) but I think 4 1/2 stars is excessive for this album – it falls in the 3 1/2 to 4 star range. I do agree that “Notes to the Coroner” is the most interesting song on the album. Too bad it wasn’t chosen as the lead single

  20. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Paul,
    I stand by my rating, though I understand that people will disagree with it. I think this is one of the best albums of 2010 so far.

    As far as a big star coming out in support of Wright, Jamey Johnson was just added to the lineup of annual her Reading, Writing & Rhythm Benefit show for June that coincides with CMA Fest, which is the best way to show his support, in my opinion. A public statement would be tacky, but quietly joining her benefit shortly after the announcement of her being gay seems like a nice, subtle way to do it.

  21. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Treacle,
    I mean other than “Like Me.” Dan and I and even Chely (see the EW quote posted above) have already discussed that one and it’s even mentioned in the review. Aside from that song, I can see no way how the album is about her being a lesbian. Sure, the fact that she came out on the release date of the album makes you think that it is, but the actual contents of the over all album proves otherwise. As I said above, I’ve vehemently defended her decision to come out elsewhere (and I will here too if necessary) , but I don’t think it means that I needed to include the coming out in the review of her music.

    I agree that Chely being gay shouldn’t be a controversial issue, but the fact is that it still is. I think it’s worth having the discussion on why this may be, but I still don’t think that it was necessary for me to include it in the review .

  22. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar says:

    Leeann: “I still don’t think that it was necessary for me to include it in the review.”

    Me: But you did. You wrote that “the most intriguing albums come from extreme adversity . . . Lifted off the Ground, which comes from a long period of deep depression and subsequent painful self-examination of where she fits in the world.” You weren’t talking about her dog dying or about her addiction to painkillers. You were talking about her coming out without actually saying the words. So you weren’t avoiding the issue; you were just addressing it delicately. And I just don’t see the point in being delicate about something that Chely Wright has put front and center. But I’m not a believer in “the love that dare not speak its name” anyway (and I suspect you probably aren’t either).

  23. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    You know? Fair enough.

  24. Cutting the TreacleNo Gravatar says:

    Chesnuttis: “has any big country star (one who can actually sell records) said anything in public or through the media in support of Chely Wright? I haven’t heard of one saying anything and that is a bit sad to me.”

    Me: I think she had colossally bad timing. The Nashville flood was the worst natural disaster in middle Tennessee’s recorded history, and I think it has completely consumed the attention of most of the Nashville community. When your own house has been flooded, ten people are dead and damage in the area is potentially in the billions, Chely Wright’s sexual orientation probably seems not so important (and is old news anyway to the industry).

  25. SamBNo Gravatar says:

    Leeann, I thought this was a great review. It’s quite a task sometimes to review something without mentioning the ‘elephant in the room’.

    At the end of the day, this album has to stand as what it is, music, without any of the story of the singer’s personal life. I feel this album does, and that’s why it works. The same goes for Taking The Long Way too, it stands on its own as a work of art, which all albums essentially have to do.

    The important question is, does it work as music? And yes, it does.

  26. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    I respect the general rule to leave the artist’s personal life out of the picture when reviewing their music, but as with the Chicks, when their life is so much a part of the process that it basically inspires the music’s creation, I think it’s only fair to talk about it. In Chely’s case, she was torn about coming out publicly as a lesbian. That, coupled with the song ‘Like Me’, which directly addresses her sexuality, and the fact that this album has a companion book that’s all about her ‘coming out’, make it impossible not to think about her personal life while listening to the album. So I think it’s impossible to ignore this time around. Hopefully with her next album …

    All that said, this review does sum up the set pretty well. There are only a few instances of the commercial country sound of Chely’s past albums, but overall, the song’s themselves are the best I’ve heard from her: smart, emotional, honest and direct. It’s ranking very high on my best of the year list so far.

  27. Hard TimesNo Gravatar says:

    Well, I love this album, especially “Damn Liar.” Very Lucinda Williams.

    As far as Chely’s sexual orientation, I want reviewers of the album to acknowledge it and discuss it in the context of her music. Knowing a songwriter’s backstory helps me appreciate his or her unique voice and connect with the songs in a deeper way. That’s why the suicide of Gary Allen’s wife is integral to discussions of “Get Off on the Pain.” Or why Emily Robison’s recent divorce is important to the songs now being recorded by the Courtyard Hounds.

    There’s another reason for mentioning Chely’s sexual orientation, at least this time around — it’s a huge deal in the history of country music.

  28. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    “There’s another reason for mentioning Chely’s sexual orientation, at least this time around — it’s a huge deal in the history of country music.”

    I agree. Feel free to discuss it in the comments here. I’ve discussed it at length elsewhere and have kind of gotten tired of talking about it, but I’ll probably jump in here if things get interesting, since I can’t resist a good blog discussion. Just be mindful of our comment policy.

  29. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Btw, I can admit when I’m wrong and I just might have been wrong in this instance. I certainly struggled with whether or not I should include her coming out in the review. I think I might have gotten hit for going either way (as evidenced by the comments above), but I definitely see the value in the points made by Treacle, et al.

  30. JosephNo Gravatar says:

    Treacle, I didn’t mean to imply anything negative about Chely’s decision to come out when I referred to her personal life as controversial. I was just saying that the very nature of her revelation is at least somewhat controversial (as sad as that may case may be) because of the world’s differing opinions on homosexuality and the scarcity of gay performers in the country music industry.

    As such, I think it was probably better to leave it out of the review in the sense that it could potentially overshadow the impressive quality of the music, much of which (as stated numerous times) makes no reference to Chely’s sexual orientation. Nevertheless, I totally see your side.

  31. Hard TimesNo Gravatar says:

    I disagree with statements saying much of her album makes no reference to her sexual orientation.

    True, she never sings “I’m a lesbian,” but c’mon, good songwriters aren’t ham-handed like that — there’s subtlety and beauty in their craft. Her sexual orientation is a part of who she is, and it imbues what she does, consciously or not.

  32. MarcNo Gravatar says:

    Leeann, as usual.. you did the right thing. Don’t bother defending it any further…

  33. Miss KittyNo Gravatar says:

    Loved your review, Leeann, and I agree that the album stands on its own as a strong and well-written one. I heard a few of the songs before Wright made her announcement, and thought to myself, “Hmm, I wouldn’t have known from the album.”

    My literature students will often imbue a poem or story (or song–we discuss songs at length, since they ARE poetry set to music) with meanings that aren’t there, or are at least tenuous. I always ask students, “Where is ________ is the lyrics? Show me. Where are the specific words that make you think it’s about _________?” Often, students can’t explain when I ask them for primary-source support for their positions. We may well do the same thing with these lines:
    You’re complex and tricky
    Yet some ways you’re not
    You’re up some and down some
    You’re cold and you’re hot
    Who’s gonna end up holding your hand?
    A beautiful woman or a tall handsome man? . . . Will anyone ever know you like me?

    I’m not a lesbian, yet these lyrics could certainly apply to me (had I written them). True, Chely Wright came out around the time she released the album. True, artists put SO much of themselves and their struggles into their music. But, as I ask my students: Can you see beyond the simple, surface interpretation of the words? Had we seen these lyrics and NOT known Wright wrote them, what might we say THEN? Take a look at the following poem, and then tell us what you think it might be about. (Sorry about the funky formatting!)

    For that I never knew you, I only learned to dread you,
    for that I never touched you, they told me you are filth,
    they showed me by every action to despise your kind;
    for that I saw my people making war on you,
    I could not tell you apart, one from another,
    for that in childhood I lived in places clear of you,
    for that all the people I knew met you by
    crushing you, stamping you to death, they poured boiling
    water on you, they flushed you down,
    for that I could not tell one from another
    only that you were dark, fast on your feet, and slender.
    Not like me.
    For that I did not know your poems
    And that I do not know any of your sayings
    And that I cannot speak or read your language
    And that I do not sing your songs
    And that I do not teach our children
    to eat your food
    or know your poems
    or sing your songs
    But that we say you are filthing our food
    But that we know you not at all.

    Yesterday I looked at one of you for the first time.
    You were lighter than the others in color, that was
    neither good nor bad.

    I was really looking for the first time.
    You seemed troubled and witty.

    Today I touched one of you for the first time.
    You were startled, you ran, you fled away
    Fast as a dancer, light, strange and lovely to the touch.
    I reach, I touch, I begin to know you.

    What/who is this about? What’s the situation? Where do you get those clues that support your position?

    Still thinking?

    Okay. It’s by Muriel Rukeyser (20th-century American poet).

    The title is…………

    (are you ready?)……
    …………….
    …………….
    …………….

    “St. Roach.”

    Sometimes it’s hard to separate artist and art. Sometimes it’s hard to separate an artist’s stated intention from what we, some time later, end up seeing in her/his art. When we don’t remember that we MUST make these distinctions in order to remain well-informed and honest readers/critics, we commit a Deadly Sin of Readership: reducing artists to just a label or phrase, which removes both their humanity AND the power of their work.

    Having said all this, I’m going to try an experiment with my lit students with Wright’s lyrics. First day of class is June 14. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  34. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Wow! Awesome, Miss Kitty. Thanks for commenting.

    I sure wish I could take one of your classes.

    Are you teaching the country music class this summer?

    Yes, please come back and let us know what your class makes of Chely’s lyrics.

  35. SamBNo Gravatar says:

    Miss Kitty – loved your comments :)

  36. Lanie JamesNo Gravatar says:

    I do believe the omission of Chely’s coming out was a mistake. It’s like a blaring omission. It may not be the reason for the album but – the process and her life before she came out obviously inspired the album.

    Regarding the lyrics to “Like Me” – Leann – “a close friend”? REALLY?? It may be uncomfortable to write but lover, partner, girlfriend, significant other is far more accurate.

    That being said…Thank Chely for getting me to pay attention to country music again. Since country stations stopped playing the Dixie Chicks on the radio – I stopped listen to country music radio.

  37. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    You may be right, but why couldn’t it be to a very close friend? If you just break down the lyrics, why would a “lover/girlfriend/partner/significant other” be wondering if the “friend” is going to end up with a beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man? I know that that’s not something that I wonder about my “lover/partner/husband/significant other.” Furthermore, it’s not farfetched (though rare, I admit) for two friends to be so close that they at least think they know each other better than anyone else knows them, especially if they have a long history together.

  38. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    In looking at the lyrics (pasted below), I see nothing that’s overly intimate about the details that are shared that would indicate that this couldn’t be from a very close friend. Everything here is all information that a good friend could easily know. I do think that it’s very possible that the perspective may be from a close friend who is longing for more though.

    Without your glasses you just plain can’t see
    Your favorite color for the most part is green
    You’re close to your grandma on your mother’s side
    You can count up on one hand the times you have lied

    You won’t eat a tomato on a double-dog dare
    You don’t think you’re a beauty but you do like your hair
    Your complex and tricky, yet someways you’re not
    You’re up some, you’re down some
    You’re cold and you’re hot

    And who’s gonna end up holdin’ your hand-
    A beautiful woman or a tall, handsome man?
    There’s no doubt they’ll love you, but it’s yet to be seen:
    Will anyone ever know you like me?


    You like plantin’ flowers, that’s heaven to you
    Crack open a beer when you’re planting through
    You’ll paint all your toenails if you have time,
    while listening to Willie, Dylan and Pride

    CHORUS

    You’d rather make-out then make love all night
    You like if your bath is too hot
    Your closet is cluttered with dress pants and Levis that you wish you’d never bought

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