Hegel thought that poetry was the highest form of art because it contained a flavor in the rhythm of the chosen words as well as a narrative in their content. On October 15th 2019 I was privileged to attend an evening that Nick Cave hosted at Walt Disney Hall that was part massive AA meeting, part performance. Much of the evening revolved around the untimely death of Mister Cave’s adolescent son and how he tried to make sense of it through his songs. Freud posited that we sublimate our frustration and anxiety into beautiful art, music and poetry and that is immediately what I thought of when I heard Steven Heighton’s stunning debut CD for the first time. I was intrigued by the ironically posited exasperation that was being transmuted into beautiful melodies. And I knew there was a deeper story that needed to be unearthed.
The origins of “The Devil’s Share” involve a near-fatal accident wherein Heighton suffered a crushed larynx and was told by an emergency room doctor that he may never speak, let alone sing, again. This grim prognosis, Heighton recalls, made him regret that he had never recorded or performed the few songs he had written between books. As he worked to regain his speaking voice, then his singing voice, new songs began to pour out. Last year Heighton began recording “The Devil’s Share” with producer Hugh Christopher Brown for Wolfe Island Records and we are their beneficiaries.
“The Devil’s Share” fuses the maturity of a veteran poet’s work with the luscious tones and textures of a musical savant. Heighton is an award-winning writer who spent decades wrestling with words and concepts, attuning his ears to both rhythm and content. Musically, the CD is a gorgeous pastiche of blues, rock, folk, country, soul, and Americana; poetically, the songs cover the ripe terrains of loss, agony and disappointment that Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave and Nick Drake toil in.
What immediately jumped out at me can only be described as “zingers” — phrases that ramble around your head long after the song has concluded:
“Brother, we’re not better, we’re just another kind of worse”
“Mister, you can take your scams and shove them up your assets”
“Friend, when you finally learn to love don’t let it be too late”
“I once believed in love received
You’re saved by the love they gave you.
Now I see it the other way —
Only love you give can save you.”
The eponymous title track is an up-tempo blues and unrepentant celebration of sexual connection — not just sex in itself but as a metaphor for embodiment in a disembodied age. “Six Months at the Worst” is an indictment of self-absolving bro-culture that melds a catchy, Tom Petty-like tune with furious, harrowing lyrics. “When I Finally Learn to Love (Don’t Let It Be Too Late)” demonstrates Heighton’s transition from poet to songwriter with the verses spoken and the chorus sung, while in “Another Kind of Worse” Heighton snarls over a thudding bass, a Klezmer clarinet and Sarah McDermott’s haunting harmonies skewering the smug pieties of progressives as well as the bigotries of the Right: “We preach on the planet while we plan out the beach tours we deserve.” But my personal favorite is “Sometimes Even Liars Tell the Truth” cowritten with backing singer Ginger Pharand.
Heighton often quotes the late John Prine: “The heart gets bored with the mind/ And it changes you.” On “The Devil’s Share” he paraphrases that notion, singing,
The brain believes it’s the one in charge
And the heart’s a lowly driver
But when the crash comes, and come it will
They’ll be just one survivor.
In the end, though, the CD attests that the best songs, like the best poems, emerge from the duet of heart and brain taking the stage together.
Striving to engage with the full spectrum of our contemporary disorder, from its crises to its moments of connection and consolation, “The Devil’s Share” integrates personal and political concerns via sumptuous melodies and moves the listener to tears, rage, laughter, and even to get up and dance, sometimes in the course of one song. Steven Heighton has wrestled with so many fierce words and concepts and, I daresay, he has triumphed. “The Devil’s Share” is a masterpiece.