PopOff! Retro Reviews Part 1: The Agony

I know the hits, you know the hits. But the album didn’t hit me in any special way at first. It wasn’t until Junior year when I was so deep in depression I ended up in the kitchen with a chef’s knife at my chest thinking maybe this was the answer, that the album got reframed in my music brain. Not long after that moment I came back to Yes I Am and learned a lesson about the power of the lyric. I don’t remember exactly how it all went down but I do know when, “Silent Legacy” came on and I heard the lyrics

They will never understand
They wonder where did they go wrong
How could you be so selfish
Why can’t you get along

And as you pray in your darkness
For wings to set you free
You are bound to your silent legacy

it was like I had found a new religion or savior. What had been missing for so much of the serviceable pop and dance I was feeding on was emotional content and a story that I could connect to. When I was listening to all those oldies from 60s some songs certainly had deep effecting lyrics but maybe I wasn’t ready or maybe they were stories I didn’t connect to. Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814 was serving social messages but it was wrapped up in so much new Jack swing that I danced more so than connected to ideals present therein.

But at that moment with the song, “Silent Legacy” I thought I was hearing my story. It was the first time a songwriter’s lyrics felt like something that also belonged to me. And I don’t think I even knew she was queer I just heard the struggle in song, the questions with no answers. But for me personally, the pain came through the loudest. The specifics may have been different but it didn’t matter… this song was about me and for me. I ended up using some of those lyrics on an art piece/self-portrait senior year. And that piece ended up being used by my English teacher on the final. When I told her the lyrics were Melissa’s she gave me a look of acknowledgment, both that she understood something about Etheridge that I didn’t and that I had used the words because I connected to them. At the time I didn’t recognize any of that from her. Looking back… clearly the teacher understood the transformation that had happened and gave it recognition by using my art of the final.

That song became such a catharsis over the years in dealing with trauma and helping me feel anything when I felt empty and at my end that the rest of the album got lost and abandoned. Oh the tears cried to that song (and others of similar deep lyricism, like “Pacing The Cage” by Bruce Cockburn)…

Returning to the album now the first thing I notice in a consistent tone of longing. A longing for answers, for satisfaction, for happiness, for an end to the pain. The album is so loud and full in production but manages to also have a hole running through it that needs to be filled. I have her previous albums and they kick ass, “Chrome-plated Heart” is a particular favorite off those early records.

But “Silent Legacy” is so clearly a song written to a younger lost self who, very much like me had to find their own way because nobody else was stepping up to help. That wail towards the end before the guitar outro… You can’t do it over so you just have learn to let the wounds scar over and forgive your younger self for their mistakes. You also have to learn to love the current scarred imperfect version of you. But that is track four. Before we get to that self-reflection we have a lot of love and heartbreak to weather.

The album starts with the rock classic, “I’m The Only One” a steamy slow burn that never lets up. It’s been belted at karaoke and used for pole dances. It is sensual and sexy but again the longing and the ache of wanting what you can’t have. And the slinky guitar plucking at the end is almost like a resignation we’ve lost as we turn and walk away.

The biggest single on the album, “Come To My Window” has the same longing and ache but feels more romantic. Almost an answer to, “I’m The Only One”. As if to say, “If you get bored or fed up with the current flame, come find me.” And both are great songs but the album cuts seem to hold all the real meat and the deeper truths.

The most door smashing, barn burning song on the album is “All American Girl”. It carries that drive of the most revved up songs by the Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, or Springsteen, or the Steve Miller Band. You hit the ignition, pedal to metal, and don’t look back. It is one of my favorites on the record.

The only true straight up love song is, “I Will Never Be The Same”. It is the most direct and romantic of the ten songs on this album. But hearing the chorus refrain of, “I will never be the same” hits differently now being on the thriving side of depression and trauma. It may be about love but having been through the personal fire it reads differently for me. And I suppose as a love song I could twist it to mean love of the self. Acceptance of who one is at the core.

“Yes I Am” is one of the other stand out tracks on the album that became a bit of a queer anthem. Dave Morey would regularly put this on his annual 10 AT 10 pride sets. It is assertive and defiant.

I won’t go track by track through all of this. But as I listen while I write I am reminded of another album released the year prior that I also did a retro review for, The Black Crowes, Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. The vibes are very similar both in genre and production. And both are albums that are a reckoning with the personal. While Yes I Am seems like a sexual awakening or declaration of sexual identity the former is about the battle with addiction. Both albums come with highs and lows in a pace that is filled with a constant drive for answers and for redemption and healing. And oddly the duality of one album being very male and straight and the other female and gay makes for an interesting discussion in an of itself.

But what Yes I Am brings to the table that The Black Crowes did not is the defiant tone in Etheridge’s voice. She is not a traditional belter like Anne Wilson or Whitney but when she wails (like Janis wailed) I feel it and I feel lit up. I know where the deep yowl is coming from. And all these years later that deep yowl still makes me cry. The loss of innocence, a childhood wrecked by violent abuse but also the courage and the refusal to accept the lies we are sold. To claw our way through to the other side burned, bruised, battered but alive and stronger for it.

The best albums do what you want them to do. Some make you dance, some make you relax, some make you angry, some do all that and more. And some lead you down unexpected paths. And this album, surprisingly, is what steered me to country music. I don’t remember how or why it got me to that doorstep but no genre of music, for me least, is more direct and raw and upfront in it’s emotions and stories than the best country music. And the lineage is definitely present on Yes I Am. And Melissa performed with non less the country music queen Dolly Parton trading cover versions for a CMT special back in the 90s.

The album closes with, “Talking To My Angel” and it does feel like closing a chapter on one’s life. Like a hug goodbye to the younger self you once had to parent because you had no parents. And then sending that younger self back to the past you know too well. But back to that past stronger and braver with new knowledge you lacked in those moments when it all felt like the end. A loud and clear message that, Yes, I am here… alive, thriving.

TASTY TRACKS:
Silent Legacy
All American Girl
Yes I Am
Ruins
I’m The Only One
Come To My Window

This is part of a 5 part series exploring my connection to music of my youth, specifically three albums from 1993. So click and album and let’s get to it.

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