Written by Tami Neilson and Jay Neilson
There are very, very few people in this, the 2016th year of our Lord, who I would rather hear sing than Tami Neilson.
Her previous single, 2015’s “Lonely,” was an exquisite masterclass in heartbreak that impressed for Neilson’s pitch-perfect clarity and restraint. “Holy Moses,” then, reaffirms the sheer breadth of Neilson’s versatility: From its opening bars, this single is anything but restrained.
I once wrote of the legendary Connie Smith– for my money, still the greatest country singer ever– that she sang like she was trying to derail a train, and Neilson is among the exceptionally rare vocalists whose power and sense of phrasing merits comparisons to Smith in that regard. The way she stretches out her vowels when she belts a line like, “No time to cry when the babies need feeding / Days flying by with nothing new in between them,” she doesn’t just reflect the tedium of her narrator’s day-to-day drudgery, she sounds like a category 5 hurricane coming ashore to wipe it all away for good.
But Neilson isn’t just about unchecked power. There’s a cocksure swagger to her performance here that’s equal parts Wanda Jackson and James Brown, and she remains in full command of her ace backing band, whose loose-limbed, rockabilly-inspired arrangement might overshadow a lesser singer. Neilson, though, cuts through the grunge-distorted powerchords with purpose: She sounds despondent and put-out when she sings, “Can’t be bothered picking up my phone / I wish the whole damn world would just leave me alone,” but she’s resolute and empowered when she growls, “But nobody can see this burden on me / Back breaking, no one else gonna carry it.”
That’s a particularly well-turned phrase, too, and “Holy Moses” packs several such lines into its scant running time. The song boasts one of the best opening stanzas in recent memory: “Losing my mind from losing your love / Raising my eyes to the skies above / But I don’t find nothing / Don’t feel nothing but alone.” It sets the tone for the song right out of the gate, as Neilson realizes that, if she’s going to find her way through her heartache, she’s going to have to do it herself.
By the song’s end, there’s little doubt that Neilson will do just that. There’s frustration and loneliness, sure, but Neilson’s the proverbial unstoppable force, and the immovable object of heartbreak would do well just to get out of her way.