Looking For a Feeling
The first solo album from Pam Tillis in thirteen years is both a return to her journey woman roots and a bold musical step forward, and it easily ranks among the strongest albums of her career.
Looking For a Feeling is the first Tillis record since her country debut, 1991’s Put Yourself in My Place, to feature a majority of songs co-written by Tillis. While she first made her name as a staff songwriter, penning tunes for everyone from Highway 101 to Chaka Khan, each successive release featured less of her songwriting. Looking For a Feeling draws its cohesiveness from her writer’s pen, and listening to those songs in particular feels like a conversation with an old friend after many years have gone by.
The album opens with the title track, which captures the yearning behind the choices made by a wide array of characters, including Tillis herself: “Seventeen when I joined my first band. Twenty-one when I gave a heartache my hand.” This sets up the album’s primary theme, which is simply the passage of time, as seen through the eyes of a wise musician with decades of creating music behind her, still looking to her craft to make some sense out of everything around her.
The material is uniformly strong, but it is the Tillis originals that shine the brightest. “Last Summer’s Wine” is a gorgeous tribute to a special moment in time, which two lovers chose to mark with fruit from the vineyard. The lyrical imagery shines here, building to the revelation that “I can still taste your lips in last summer’s wine.” “My Kind of Medicine” rejects the medical remedies for a spirit in turmoil, embracing the “God-shaped holes” that surround us if we take the time to look for them.
“Lady Music” is the album’s centerpiece, a tale of a musician plucked from the fields by the muse: “You don’t choose her. She chooses you.” It could easily be the story of her legendary father, Mel Tillis, as she sings of the singer who made it “from a cinder block dive to a sold out arena, not for money, no, he didn’t care. He just loved finding her somewhere lost in a feeling, and he’d follow her anywhere.”
There’s a poetry to her description of getting older, “when there’s more miles behind than the ones left to travel, and time is a game you can’t win,” and while “Lady Music” is celebratory of those miles traveled, other songs on the album speak to the consequences of choices that can’t be undone. “Karma” is the self-loathing lament of someone getting what’s coming to her, those “lessons that I wish were in the past” that “are catching up with me fast.” “Better Friends,” written by Joe Pisapia, is a bittersweet lament of a relationship taken for granted that likely cannot be recovered: “Are we the pages of a book near the end?” she wonders, and while the lyric doesn’t answer the question, the melancholy arrangement and sad resignation in her vocal make the answer clear.
“Dark Turn of Mind,” the most traditional number on the album, was co-written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Tillis finds an undercurrent of joy in a very dark lyric, which makes the closing line more believable: “Some girls are bright as the morning, and some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind.” That perspective lifts up “The Scheme of Things,” which finds a sliver of hope in her pending heartbreak: “Only one good thing about goodbye. There’s nothing more to say. Heaven knows what kind of lies you’d tell if you thought you had to stay.”
The album’s purest moment of levity comes early with “Dolly 1969,” a Bob Regan song built around a black and white photo of Dolly Parton, just as she’s getting her start as a country music artist. All of her success is still ahead of her in that photo, but in 2020, we all know what’s coming. The song has an extra power because it’s sung by Tillis, an artist who walked through the doors that were widened by the broad scope of Parton’s work. Plus, it’s just fun to hear her fantasize about hitching a ride with Parton, so she can “try on that coat of many colors, and slap that little bitch Jolene.”
The album closes with a gentle instrumental reprise of “Better Friends,” a much needed coda to the startling, apocalyptic “Burning Star,” another Tillis original. The song already would’ve had a dramatic impact without it being released during a worldwide pandemic, but the current circumstances we find ourselves in certainly heightens the intensity of her search for truth and meaning in a world that resists sharing such things with us: “If the writing’s on the wall, can’t say that we were never warned. Oh, what if everything is perfect, and all things must die to be reborn? Is the sky really falling? Has it all been carved in stone? Are we all just waiting here for someone to take us home?” It’s the kind of song that couldn’t be convincingly written or sung by someone in their twenties or thirties, and is the best reminder – on an album full of them – that our best artists become even more relevant and necessary with time.
Looking For a Feeling is the first Pam Tillis album that could be credibly described as a roots album, with a sound that’s more Memphis than Nashville. It’s a great sonic playground for her styled vocals, but it’s Tillis returning to her own roots as a songwriter and a journey woman that give the album its power. That potent combination of singer and writer haven’t been felt this intensely on a Tillis record since her earliest work on Arista Records in the early nineties, and that it sounds like nothing she’s ever done before is, in its own way, a similar coming home. What always made Tillis stand out in what was the golden era for women in country music was her artistic restlessness and the emotional truth of her material. Looking For a Feeling showcases those strengths as well as anything she’s ever released. It’s essential listening from an artist that’s been away for too long.