dont-do-anything[This is an expanded version of a review that was originally published at Christianity Today.]

When Sam Phillips last toured, she sang a memorable refrain about heartbreak: “When you’re down / You find out what’s down there.”

Phillips new “short-playing” album, Don’t Do Anything (Nonesuch Records), is like a travel journal from a painful journeys. She sings about betrayal, the breakdown of a marriage, regrets, and what it’s like to live on the west side of Los Angeles surrounded by people with broken dreams. But throughout these passionate songs, she points us toward hope — a river of love that’s flowing “under the night.”

It begins with “No Explanations,” an account of a breakup, strung tight as razor wire, in which drummer Jay Bellerose’s kick-drum pounds like the righteous anger pulsing in the singer’s temples. And it concludes with “Watching Out of This World,” a declaration of faith and an affirmation of “The splendor / The holiness of life / That reveals itself / turning blind fate / into destiny.”

Between those songs, we’re taken on a bumpy ride from the depths of heartbreak and confusion to the heights of insight and hope. But she’s surrounded by sympathetic collaborators. While it’s her most intimate album since The Turning, it is enhanced by the chemistry of violinist Eric Gorfain, the Section Quartet, bassists Paul Bryan and Jennifer Condos, and pump organist Patrick Warren contribute exquisite dissonance and flourishes of harmonic beauty. Bellerose’s drums rumble, shake, rattle, and roll more prominently than ever before.

“Can’t Come Down” was inspired by a 1930s pastor in L.A. whose church became both a refuge for lost souls and a tourist attraction. “I found heat where the hands can’t reach and the eyes can’t see,” Phillips sings. It’s a shuffling, foot-stomping good time about the hard work of healing broken dreamers.

The title track is one of Phillips’s finest anthems—a declaration of persevering love for the overachiever, even when that soul is broken, helpless, useless, and still. “It’s a pretty radical statement,” she says. “Everything is so performance-oriented in our society that it’s easy to lose sight of grace and love. I was not only thinking about the men in my life and the pressures on them, but also about my little girl and how much I love her, and about loving myself for who I am. Having done my time in the west side of Los Angeles, a very affluent part of the world, watching people in Hollywood be so hard on themselves… this song is my reaction to all I’ve seen around me.”

The explosive, reckless halfway point—“My Career in Chemistry”—plays like a reassessment of her experimental career so far. (Is “the chemical that never did wear off” a sly reference to Mr. Burnett’s creative influence, perhaps?) “Another Song” captures a moment on the edge of despair: “The soul can’t float with holes / but before you go down you write another song….” Critics frequently note John Lennon’s influence on Phillips’ style, and “Flowers Up” makes clear reference to “Imagine” while offering vivid, bittersweet images of L.A. (“Diamond dice, sweat and silk / Midnight pools / Date palms and wind machines / Waves of heat from pretty fools.”)

While some lines are so direct that they sting (“Did you ever love me?”), Phillips is not interested in reducing this record to a bitter autobiography. She’s a poet and a storyteller. There are moments of humbling revelation, as in “Little Plastic Life” when she observes, “I detected fire / in myself before the flame / that burned it all to the ground.”

The album’s high point is the tribute to the early gospel rocker Sister Rosetta Tharpe. “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is so good that it’s already been covered by Allison Krauss and Robert Plant on their excellent collaboration Raising Sand. Their version was ethereal and graceful, but Phillips’ take captures the good Sister’s punchy, rowdy, zealous spirit. But it’s also personal. Phillips sings about Tharpe’s glorious gospel music, which helps her navigate through the dark:

I hear Rosetta singing in the night
Echoes of light that shine like stars after they’re gone
Tonight she’s my guide as I go on alone
With the music up above.

In fact, the second half of the album takes us through the shadows of doubt in pursuit of a distant glimmer of hope.

And she has seen a great deal. Phillips’ career is one of the most compelling, unpredictable careers in modern rock. Beginning as Christian rocker Leslie Phillips, she made a memorable exit from the Christian music industry in 1987 with an album called The Turning, switched to her childhood nickname Sam, and found new freedom to sing more than just praise songs. In six more albums, she did a lot of soul-searching, singing about questions, doubt, struggles, in voices both satirical and sincere. She won critical acclaim, roles in feature films, and work composing music for television (Gilmore Girls).

Don’t Do Anything marks the most significant turning in her career since, well… The Turning. In addition to singing and playing piano and guitar (electric and acoustic), Phillips stepped up to act as producer, taking over for T-Bone Burnett who produced her work for almost twenty years. In fact, these songs grew during the painful disintegration of Phillips’ two-decade marriage to Burnett. While the anguish is evident throughout, these songs glow with hope, signs of healing, and a faith that persists despite disappointment and regret.

“I determined early on I was going to stubbornly love T-Bone for the rest of my life,” Phillips tells Christianity Today. “Some things were my fault, some things were his fault. I didn’t take my marriage lightly, and I was sad that it ended. It was such a loss.”

While some fans from her early Christian-music days stick with her, many are unlikely to recognize her at this point in her evolution. And she’s careful not to be labeled or categorized as merely as “Christian musician.”

“Most people, when they call themselves Christians, are saying they’re right-wing Republicans. Republican and Christian… those aren’t the same things. Christians aren’t right-wing by definition, but most of the world thinks that. If you are going to talk about making art as a Christian, people are going to start thinking you have a political agenda. We have a problem here. I don’t think that’s good. … The definition of what a Christian is has become very narrow, and nobody but Christians can do anything about that.”

While she’s unlikely to be recognized as Leslie Phillips, she’s even more unlikely to be confused with that other famous Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis and Johnny Cash. Still, she can be proud of what she’s stirred up. Don’t Do Anything is a playful pop cocktail, poured over ice, with salt on the glass and more than just a twist of lemon. To borrow a line from Over the Rhine, “What a beautiful piece of heartache this has all turned out to be.”