Grant-Lee Phillips

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When you're a musician used to a certain creative groove, it's disorienting to have this rhythm disrupted. But that was just the position Grant-Lee Phillips found himself in spring 2020: Months before the release of a new full-length, Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff — an album he was already previewing on an early 2020 tour with John Doe and Kristin Hersh — the pandemic led to the cancellation of tour dates and other promotional plans. Like many musicians, Phillips sought out silver linings wherever he could find them. He started performing weekly at-home livestreams, dubbed Live from the Parlor, and promoted Lightning, Show Us Your Stuff from his house in Nashville. 


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The resulting full-length, All That You Can Dream, is understandably introspective, as it's anchored by Phillips' empathetic voice and rich acoustic guitar. The album's lyrics attempt to make sense of an uncertain, anxiety-riddled time, while coming to terms with the idea that once-unshakeable things now seem fragile or fallible. "In terms of subject matter, I found that the circumstances of being off the road, and left to reflect on what this time feels like, produced a different kind of song," Phillips says. "I wasn't entirely certain—and to be honest, I'm still not altogether certain—when I get to take these songs on the road. In some ways, that freed me up to write and record the kind of song that was personal and executed as though it were for an audience of myself alone. That's freeing."

Nevertheless, writing at home was admittedly an adjustment for Phillips, who was used to the solitude of songwriting while on the road. However, he still found inspiration in movement — he and his family took daily drives in the serene Tennessee countryside, marveling at turkey vultures and haphazard hay rolls — even as his songwriting turned toward global current events. "By and large, most of what you hear is me reacting to everything that we've gone through in this year, alone," Phillips says. "The attack on the Capitol, making our way through this pandemic, and everything else."

By coincidence, he found that some of the older songs he was working up for the album had similar thematic immediacy. The string-buoyed "A Sudden Place," written in 2019 following the burning of the Notre Dame Cathedral, speaks to how quickly unshakeable monuments can crumble. The solemn, piano-driven "My Eyes Have Seen," meanwhile, references the inhumane ways immigrants and asylum-seekers were treated at the southern border during the Trump administration, a troubling development that's still not rectified.

All That You Can Dream is also rife with Phillips' signature songwriting flourish: using rich historical references to illuminate modern truths. "I'm always juxtaposing the events that we're all going through with similar events in history—sometimes laying one over the other to draw a comparison, to find parallels, to seek out patterns," Phillips says. As an example, he cites the "Rats in a Barrel," an unsparing condemnation of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol Building with a specific nod to historical turmoil ("Old Lincoln saw it all go down/Almost looked like the first time ‘round").

The album-closing "All by Heart" also cautions against historical complacency: "In our memories / We seek to find some meaning in the past / But do not think, for once / That grief is buried in the grass." And the title track speaks to the idea that, as time has shown us, not everyone benefits from progress and forward motion. "All of us are engaged in a collective dream," Phillips says. "In this dream, we have a choice between a world that’s hospitable or one that’s brutal. We face a struggle between the visionary and the cynical. In this way, there’s a dual meaning in 'All That You Can Dream'—the possibility of betterment or the inevitably of collapse."

In a nod to this lyrical elegance, All That You Can Dream's music is ornate but spare. Phillips wrote and arranged the album's songs on guitar or piano, adding a basic rhythmic and vocal framework. To flesh out the music's contours, he then enlisted a pair of trusted previous collaborators, the Los Angeles-based bassist Jennifer Condos and drummer Jay Bellerose. "They were going stir-crazy themselves and welcomed the idea of a long-distance recording project," Phillips says. Bellerose set up drums in his living room, Condos served as engineer, and the duo laid down rhythm tracks to songs Phillips had sent over, as if the three musicians were all in the same room.