Sam Phillips writes lyrics like a miser spends his money. Her literary equivalent would be, say, Amy Hempel, whose short stories possess the brutal concision of a guilty plea.
What makes Sam Phillips' music so rewarding — that she places demands on the listener to meet her at least half way — is precisely what makes it challenging for many other listeners: that she asks you to meet her half way. Those who are up to the challenge will discover an artist who has produced a consistently excellent, if not prolific, body of work—seven albums over nearly twenty years, plus, now, her latest, Don't Do Anything.
It's Phillips' first record (excluding gospel releases recorded as Leslie Phillips) not produced by her former husband, T Bone Burnett. Self produced, Don't Do Anything does not sound dramatically different from her previous work with Burnett. Where Burnett might tend to let Phillips' sound breathe here and there or become gauzy and relaxed, on Don't Do Anything Phillips wants the sound to exert itself, flex its muscles— and it does. Thus the music on Don't Do Anything comes across as slightly claustrophobic and grimly atmospheric, but it is clearly self-assured, and, yes, challenging.
Because its rewards exceed it challenges, Don't Do Anything is Sam Phillips' best release since 1994's Bikinis & Martinis, her only album (Grammy nominated) to receive wide-spread acclaim.
A listener thoroughly familiar with Phillips' work might be inclined to pronounce it her "divorce" album. In the album there does reside a deep sense, painful at times, of abandonment, heartbreak, perhaps betrayal—but the idea that Don't Do Anything is Phillips' breakup record does the whole concept a disservice. Phillips is a woman of intense, if quirky, emotion—which includes great resilience—and it reveals itself here in ways not fundamentally different or more intense than in her other work. Subjects other than her former husband actually exist. Still, divorce is pain, and you'd have to call Don't Do Anything a modest departure from the body of her work.