Tami Neilson’s latest album, “Kingmaker,” arrives at a particularly apt moment in time, a moment when women everywhere (but especially where I’m writing in the United States) are encountering increasing resistance to their autonomy, their safety, and their equality. Neilson dares in this project to raise her voice in answer to all of those challenges, and does so boldly and beautifully. (And oh, that voice… a cinematic instrument for the ages to be sure.)
I hope that men not only listen to this project, but listen deeply. For Neilson offers a portrait of what it still is, in the 21st century, to be a woman in what remains very much a man’s world… the uncertainty, the fear, the constant balancing of expectations (so many of which are often manifestly unfair). Ideally, if a woman can find her courage, she can also find the power to rise above those things and become the person she truly ought to be – but she does not always have the opportunity to discover those things in herself, as Neilson’s songs also demonstrate.
The album begins with the title track, and Neilson sets the tone right away:
“Kingmaker, life taker
It’s my blazing light that made your shadow tall
Now I see, you’re empty
And I’ve always been a King, after all”
So many women over the centuries, laboring in the shadow of men, making their success possible, never being recognized for it – can you hear their voices echoing Neilson’s?
In this juxtaposition of “kingmaker” and “king,” there are some crucial ideas at play. First, the idea that women have functioned as kingmaker countless times in history flows throughout this album. But consider the idea of a woman singing “I’ve always been a King” – while we traditionally would associate kingship with maleness, Neilson tosses that aside and claims that right for women as well. The deliberate reversal of gender roles can be an effective means of flipping the mental script and she utilizes it wonderfully here and throughout the album.
In “Careless Woman” and “Baby, You’re a Gun,” Neilson tackles the theme of women defining themselves instead of allowing others (particularly men) to define us. She crystallizes just how tricky it is to thread the needle of others’ expectations – too loud, too quiet, too outspoken, too demure… it seems we’re never just right, just as we are. But however we are perceived (“When they look at you, they see a lady / China teacup, pour yourself out / Graciously accepting only what’s allowed”), we are always more than that, and it is that person – that true self – that Neilson is exhorting women to be.
“King of Country Music” explores the idea that while so many accomplishments (including, perhaps, country music) are attributed to men, women have been and continue to be pioneers in countless arenas large and small. And “Mama’s Talkin’” is as effective a response to mansplaining as I’ve heard – the next time someone tries it with you, it might be worth borrowing a line or two from this song! “Dinosaurs became extinct and that caveman way you think / Is gonna walk you off the edge of our timeline.” BOOM! (Or, more appropriately perhaps, CHICKABOOM.)
“Green Peaches” provides a grim portrait of the ways in which women, particularly younger ones, are vulnerable to exploitation, especially as they attempt to build their careers, while “The Grudge” explores how family conflicts can spiral through multiple generations.
In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Neilson’s duet with Willie Nelson, “Beyond the Stars,” will likely get the lion’s share of the airplay for the songs on this album. Certainly it’s a beautiful song, and singing with such an established artist is a fantastic opportunity – but I can only hope that listeners who are introduced to her via this track will give the rest of the album a chance, since there is so much depth to discover.
The album closes as it begins, with the powerhouse “Ain’t My Job”:
“You want me to sign your letter but it ain’t my job
Then you want me to make you feel better but it ain’t my job
You make me an offer that make me wanna holla
20 cents less on every damn dollar
You can stick it, put a pin in it ‘cause it ain’t my job.”
To the ladies who are reading this: it ain’t our job to be anything other than true to ourselves. And to the men reading this: maybe think about the picture Tami Neilson is drawing here, and act (or change) accordingly. We all have a world to change (to save, maybe?) before it’s too late.