Album Review: "Liberty" by Lindi Ortega
A Tale of Betrayal, Revenge and Redemption
Critics are calling Lindi Ortega's tribute to the music of spaghetti westerns one of the best concept albums of 2018. But what IS a concept album? And what's the concept behind Liberty?
Album Review Podcast - Show Notes
Learn more about Lindi Ortega, listen to Liberty, and read additional reviews.
Listen to Liberty
Lindi Ortega's Liberty:
A Tale of Betrayal, Revenge, and Redemption in the American West
This is a partial transcript of Ep. 24 of the What's This Album About? podcast published April 18, 2018
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ARTIST BIO: About Lindi Ortega
Lindi Ortega is 37-year-old country singer/songwriter from Ontario, Canada. Just in case you’re thinking the US is the only nation with a thriving country music tradition, Canada has its own country music association and a history of popular artists that stems at least as far back as Wilf Carter in 1930s and continuing in in the 1950s with artists like Hank Snow, Anne Murray in the 70s and 80s, Shania Twain in the 90s, not to mention a host of awesome alt country artists throughout the decades, including k.d. lang, Colter Wall (whose self-titled debut album we reviewed on this podcast last year), and Sarah Shook, whose latest album, Years, came out earlier this month and is rocking my world.
Lindi Ortega, by most accounts, fits firmly into that latter category—alt country—as evidenced by the nickname she earned in the early years of the 21st century, Indie Lindi. Lindi is so indie, in fact, that her first two albums—2001’s The Taste of Forbidden Fruit and 2007’s Fall From Grace—are not available for instant purchase—hence, my lack of catchy sound clips to represent those albums.
By most accounts, it wasn’t until 2011 that Lindi finally came of age—musically speaking—with the release of her first of (so far) five albums through Last Gang Records, Little Red Boots..
There was also 2012’s Cigarettes and Truck Stops, 2013’s Tin Star, 2015’s Faded Gloryville, which features a really cool cover of the BeeGees classis, “To Love Somebody,” and, most recently, 2018’s Liberty.
And that, my friends, brings us to the matter of hand. Without ado, let’s take a look at Lindi Ortega’s amazing new concept album, Liberty, as we ask ourselves what we always ask ourselves—What’s this album about?
LYRICAL ANALYSIS: LIBERTY
Toronto-raised country artist Lindi Ortega released her most recent album Liberty on March 30, 2018. Track 1, “Through the Dust, Part 1” is strongly reminiscent of the soundtracks of old westerns. And so is the entire album. Ortega describes Liberty as her most cohesive album to date, and critics seem to agree because they’re almost unanimously describing it as a concept album.
That term—concept album—is one I tossed around pretty casually in our last episode, when we compared Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends, to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
I repeatedly described both albums as concept albums but never explained what I mean by the term concept album. So, this time around, let’s talk about what a concept album is and see how Lindi Ortega’s new album Liberty fits the definition.
So, What IS a Concept Album, Exactly?
One of the reasons I neglected to define the term concept album in our last episode may be that there is no decisive definition of what a concept album is. According to some sources, a concept album is any album that has a unifying theme. Unfortunately, if we go with that definition, we end up classifying all kinds of albums as concept albums that generally don’t get considered as such. Take Brandi Carlile’s By The Way I For Give You, which we reviewed on this podcast earlier this year. According to Carlile, the entire album is an exploration of forgiveness. So it’s definitely got a strong central theme. But, as far as I can remember, no commentators were calling it a concept album. It just doesn’t seem to be one.
Other definitions focus on an album’s narrative or theatrical qualities, which is useful in some ways because it allows us to exclude albums that merely have strong central themes, like By The Way, I Forgive You, and focus on albums like Hurray for the Riff Raff’s 2017 album, The Navigator, which we reviewed last year on this show.
The Navigator tells the story of a protagonist named Navi who leaves the New York Puerto Rican neighborhood of her youth in pursuit of broader horizons only to return later in life to discover that it has been gentrified beyond recognition. It has an unmistakably narrative bent, and, as a result, it was almost universally recognized as a concept album.
I would caution, however, that if we define a concept album as one with a single, cohesive narrative, we are likely to exclude some albums that we would almost certainly want to include. Take this one, for example, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper’s is almost universally recognized as one of the most influential concept albums of all time, but it doesn’t really tell a story so much as it spins a vision of an alternative world in which the Beatles aren’t the Beatles; they’re a mythic alter-ego ensemble called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
To my mind, this spinning of an alternative world works pretty well as a defining characteristic of a concept album. A concept album creates a metaworld, to borrow a phrase from literary theory. The Greek prefix meta means “beyond,” and so a metaworld is a created world that exists beyond the realm of the listener’s everyday experience. With this definition, we can exclude albums that are merely themed, like By The Way, I Forgive You, but include albums like Sgt. Pepper’s, that may not tell a story per se but nonetheless invite their listeners into a carefully created metaworld.
The Metaworld of Liberty
And what is the metaworld that Lindi Ortega creates in Liberty? It’s the sonic world of the spaghetti western.
Spaghetti westerns were films made mostly in the 1960s and 70s that had many of the archetypal characters of older westerns—cowboys and Indians, boomtown sheriffs, gun-slinging outlaws—but were ironically filmed in Italy by Italian directors—because it was often cheaper to shoot in Italy than in the American West. Ortega has stated in interviews that Liberty was directly inspired by preeminent spaghetti western film score composer, Ennio Morricone.
Morricone’s most recognizable composition, the theme from 1966’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. It burrowed so deeply into the world’s collective unconscious that it’s almost impossible to hear it without thinking of the American West of the late 19th century. To her credit, Ortega evokes that powerfully resonant metaworld with formidable artistry, making Liberty simultaneously an homage to Marricone and an expression of her own unique Gothic country vision.
I should also point out that, although I don’t think a concept album has to tell a single cohesive story, Liberty does. Its first words occur on Track 2, “Afraid of the Dark,” where Ortega, voicing the album’s nameless protagonist, warns us of the darkness in her heart.
♪ Don’t come any closer to my heart
If you’re afraid of the dark
In Track 3, “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me,” we get the sense that the darkness in our heroine’s heart was caused by a deceptive lover.
♪ You’re a sinner, but you’re actin’ like a saint
And you think you’re foolin’ me, but you ain’t
The trauma of her lover’s betrayal triggers memories of another trauma as the protagonist recalls the death of a childhood friend on Track 4, “Til My Dyin’ Day.”
♪ I was weeping underneath the willow tree
I remember that’s where we used to play
But the angels have taken you away from me
I’ll be crying til my dyin’ day
According to Ortega’s liner notes, the “darkness and grief” of “You Ain’t Foolin’ Me” and “Til My Dyin’ Day” give way to desperation on Track 5, “Nothing Is Impossible,” where our heroine declares she would give her soul to the Devil to get her man back.
♪ I say nothing’s impossible
Why wouldn’t I do what I can?
I’d let the Devil just take my soul
If he’d give me back my man
There’s a sonic eeriness in “Nothing’s Impossible” that makes me wonder if there’s more going on in this song than is evident from a literal interpretation of the lyrics. The line that makes me most suspicious is this one:
♪ I’ll make it just like when you were here
before I laid you to rest
She says she laid her lover to rest—implying he’s dead, like maybe she killed him. Maybe when she says she’ll do whatever she can to get her man back, maybe she’s saying she will join him in death. Is she going to kill herself? Is she going to contact him through a séance? Or is this all to be taken metaphorically? As with many concept albums, the storyline of Liberty is not completely discernible, but the implications are haunting.
And they become more haunting on Track 7, “The Comeback Kid,” the violent undercurrent of Liberty reaches its apex.
Here the violence is no longer implicit as the protagonist recalls a bloody confrontation between her and her estranged lover.
♪ Six feet under, you left me in the ground for dead
Only shot three rounds, but one found a way to my head
Well, no one could survive with all of the blood that I bled
But I’m still alive, so I guess I’ll try livin’ instead?
Although most of “The Comeback Kid” is tinged with memories of violence and the protagonist’s thoughts of revenge, that last line we heard, “I guess I’ll try lvin’ instead,” foreshadows the more positive direction the rest of the album takes.
Track 8, “Darkness Be Gone” turns to hope as our heroine redirects her violent urges away from thoughts of revenge and toward the destruction of her own internal demons.
♪ I feel like there is hope in Hell that I will find a way
I have got a bullet for one demon left to slay
The hunted is the hunter now, and the Devil, you’re the prey
I won’t let you drag me down. I’ll see the light of day
On Track 9, “Forever Blue,” the protagonist finally rejects the darkness that has plagued her soul and commits to a life in the light.
♪ Oh, light, glorious light, I will follow you
Skies will always be forever blue
And on Track 10, “In the Clear,” She rejoices in her newfound peace of mind.
♪ There ain’t no hurricanes or tornadoes here
The storm has passed. Now we are in the clear
By the way, Ortega has stated that, although Liberty is a fictional account, the story is at least partially inspired by her real-life experiences recovering from a traumatic romantic relationship and moving on to a more healthy one. On Track 11, “Pablo,” we find the protagonist in love with a new man, Pablo.
♪ The seed of love in my heart each day will grow
For my darling Pablo
The protagonist’s relationship to this new character, Pablo, by the way, is believed to represent Ortega’s own relationship to her new husband, guitarist Daniel Huscroft—a relationship fans can assume is going well because Track 12, “Lovers In Love,” finds our heroine rejoicing in the permanence of true love.
♪ The difference between lovers and lovers in love?
Some take just a sip, while some drink it up
Some leave. Some stay when the going gets rough
That’s the difference between lovers and lovers in love
The album ends with two songs that collectively constitute the story’s final resolution. There’s Track 14, the album’s title track, Liberty, which evinces the classic western trope of a ride off into the sunset.
♪ Liberty! Through the desert, riding free
Like an unchained melody, riding toward the sun
And that, my friends, brings us to the conclusion of this this long and turbulent tale of violence, betrayal, revenge and resolution. Lindi Ortega’s impeccably crafted concept album, Liberty, draws to a peaceful end on Track 15, the beautifully wrought exaltation of life, “Gracias a la Vida.”
And with that, I too shall ride off into the sunset and thank you for listening to another episode of What’s This Album About? If you liked what you heard, share a link with a friend. It’ll help people like you find podcasts like ours. Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to get along, little doggie… And keep your ears open because the more you listen, the more you love.
Until next time, I’m Bobby Waller reminding you to look and ask questions—and to keep your ears open because the more you listen, the more you love.