LISTENING TO World on Sticks, the tenth studio album from singer-songwriter Sam Phillips and her first in five years, I came to the realization that size really does matter—at least in the arts. Walking through the great art museums of the world, I’ve often been startled to discover that a Vermeer I had always assumed was two or three feet across is half that size or even smaller.
The art critics have a term for an artist’s capacity to convey a largeness of scope and vision within a limited space: “monumentality.” Then there’s the hallowed tradition in art of the “miniature,” which goes well beyond dollhouses, back into the medieval world of Europe and the Middle East.
It may seem absurd to characterize the songwriting of Sam Phillips as an exercise in crafting miniatures—after all, most pop songs are themselves only three or four minutes long. Yet consider the proportions of those Vermeer paintings. Many of Phillips’s songs are barely more than two.
More to the point, her songs have a spare, tightly constructed feel, combining expert arrangements with simple, if often enigmatic, lyrics. They are never in danger of overstaying their welcome.
According to Wendy Zollinger, “What gives the miniaturist particular pleasure is the freedom to become intimate and powerful on a small scale. It invites, even encourages, the viewer to come closer into its designs and contents. Its space actually enlarges and becomes more powerful with the viewer’s participation.”
It’s fairly well known that Sam’s career began in the Christian music business when she was known as Leslie Phillips. That world has always preferred to go large: big, clear, pious messages with big, conventional production values that manipulate, rather evoke, emotion—bad theology leading to abysmal aesthetics.
But it is not pietistic to say that the Damascus Road experience which transformed Leslie into Sam was truly redemptive. In short order she moved from the evangelical subculture into the mainstream of American music-making. Instead of purveying what T.S. Eliot called “undisciplined squads of emotion,” Phillips fashioned miniature song that have more in common with the mysterious box assemblages of mid-twentieth century artist Joseph Cornell than they do with commercial pop music.
Of miniatures, Carol Rosinki writes: “The secret about miniature art is the intense sense of intimacy that is experienced when you hold a piece in your hand. When a piece of art is so small that it can rest in the palm of your hand, you are being gently invited to bring it a little closer to your eyes. You bow your head a bit and bring your hand nearer to your face. This is a very intimate pose. At this moment, you have let the piece of art enter into a vulnerable personal area.”
As for looking, so for listening. Both require leaning in, getting closer. And when you’ve got consummate musicians like percussionist Jay Bellerose and multi-instrumentalist Eric Gorfain in your band, that close listening is amply rewarded.
Now don’t get me wrong: Sam Phillips may exemplify the “less is more” aesthetic but she still knows how to do the lush and the seductive. The timbre of her voice is unique and unforgettable. Her songs—and World on Sticks is no exception—have great hooks. But with a Sam Phillips song, those hooks have a way of getting snagged in your gut; like a dangerous femme fatale from a film noir, they hurt you, beautifully. This is how she has managed to transform and redeem the moralism of the American church she was raised in into something more human—and thus more truly, deeply moral.
On her website Phillips says of World on Sticks: “Troubles on the outside can be reflections of troubles on the inside. We hand big business and big tech the keys when we accept their definitions and dreams of the good life, of beauty, of success, instead of creating our own. As I wrote these songs I wanted to look at our lost connections…with nature, with mystery, with other humans and parts of ourselves.”
If you can find where the heart is buried
No more blood on the street will fall
I’ve painted my lies and torments
I can’t disguise them all
You tried to shake me to my senses
Waking a holy fire….
Eyes from the ashes
See through every door
Not who we were
But now brighter than before (“Different Shades of Light”)
She adds that the dominant experience fueling the album is the death of her father, a tough ex-Marine who in his frail later years became a hoarder, the occasion for the song “American Landfill Kings.” Her best songs, here as elsewhere, stick more closely to the “inside,” allowing the “outside” to be implied. But she can occasionally slip into a more overt, political mode, as in the flatter, more repetitive song, “How Much is Enough.”
Most of Phillips’s albums contain at least one tribute to an artist, thinker, or activist who has meant something to her. Walker Percy and Sister Rosetta Tharpe come to mind from her earlier records. On World on Sticks she manages to write a song—well, more of a musical haiku—about Jesuit anthropologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It attempts no narrative recounting of Teilhard’s life, contenting itself with a few, small brushstrokes.
Making something feel big while working within a small canvas: that’s what the art critics call monumentality. At this point in her distinguished career, I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that Sam Phillips is a monumental figure.
In a small way, of course.