My Wild West
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Despite Elisabeth “Lissie” Maurus’ relatively short ten year career thus far, during which the Rockford, Illinois bred singer-songwriter has released three stellar albums and a handful of solid EPs, it seems as if her memorable music has been with us much longer. Presumably owing to the fact that, if you’re like us, you fell madly in love with her dynamic voice, crystalline phrasing, and introspective lyrics the first time you heard her.
When the Albumism team first heard the shimmering melodies of her critically lauded 2010 debut album Catching a Tiger, we instantly wondered how we could have ever existed so long without her music filling our ears with such graceful reveries. In simpler terms, we were instantly hooked. And we’ve followed her evolving career closely ever since.
In her recent conversation with Paste magazine, the 33 year-old Lissie clarifies that “Hero,” the powerfully plaintive lead single from her new and first independently released album My Wild West, reflects her attempts to reconcile “what I should want as a musician.” She adds that “When you pursue [music] as a career, I think people assume you must want world domination and riches and fame and glory, and I don’t think I’ve found that’s really what I want or maybe even what I’m capable of.”
Figuring out what she wants—whether professionally, geographically, spiritually, romantically, or otherwise—is indeed the salient theme across My Wild West’s twelve thoughtfully conceived and exquisitely crafted songs. Though the album examines the hefty subjects of its creator’s self-awareness and self-worth, it’s ultimately less the manifestation of an identity crisis, and much more of an identity recalibration, largely prompted by her recent move.
After spending twelve years in Southern California—five years in Los Angeles proper and the last seven in the small town of Ojai, eighty miles northwest of the city—Lissie recently fled the Golden State to return to her Midwestern roots, and more specifically, a 10-acre farm she bought in Iowa. Not surprisingly, many of the album’s songs revolve around her assessing what went right and what went wrong during her time in California, with an expectant eye cast toward what her future holds.
As is the case on Catching a Tiger and her 2013 follow-up Back to Forever, highlights abound across My Wild West. The symphonic, strings-laden album opener “Hollywood” finds Lissie penning a liberating “Dear John” letter to California, as she confronts the weight of expectations that greeted her upon arriving there years ago. She confesses that “I fell in love with California / I fell in love with a dream / No matter how they try and warn you / You fall apart at the seams,” subsequently concluding “But, oh Hollywood / You don’t own me.”
A similar sentiment echoes later in the introspective closing track “Ojai,” her bittersweet farewell to her adopted town, which she left behind for her native Midwest because she believes she’ll “bloom where she’s planted.”
Showcasing just how deeply she infuses her heart and soul within her soaring vocals, the sparkling swell of the title track touches upon the marginalization she experienced on the west coast, but reinforces her commitment to persevering through it all, as she sings “I haven't lost my hope (I'm done pretending) / Even though I am so far from my home.”
On the aforementioned “Hero,” Lissie evokes Stevie Nicks’ cool emotiveness, as she struggles with defining her identity beyond the fame that so many performers aspire to, contemplating that “I could have been a hero, I could have been a zero.”
Dedicated to Lissie’s Aunt, who lost her battle with ALS in 2010, the solemn, stirring “Sun Keeps Risin’” explores the challenges of reconciling the mundane monotony of daily life when someone you love is no longer with you.
Additional standouts include the dazzling, yearning love song “Don’t You Give Up On Me,” the poignant anthem of female empowerment “Daughters,” the plaintive, countrified ballad “Together or Apart, and the carpe diem inspired clarion call “Go For a Walk.”
In her lukewarm review for Pitchfork, Katherine St. Asaph suggests that Lissie “sits squarely in the Hotel Café roster that’s nurtured the careers of the likes of Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson, and a pre-sales-singularity Adele—a substantial yet critically shrugged-at genre better known these days as ‘songs you probably heard on Grey’s Anatomy or something once.’"
We respectfully disagree. Such lazy over-generalization and genre classification undermine Lissie’s multi-dimensional talents and charms. For our money, she is quite a bit more intriguing than each of the artists that St. Asaph references, largely because her songs are far more varied, impassioned, and ultimately, rewarding.
In light of Lissie’s previous work and upon listening to My Wild West over the past few days (on repeat, mind you), we remain baffled as to why she has not morphed into a global superstar. She certainly possesses all the makings of one, with amazing songs to boot. But then upon more focused reflection, My Wild West reminds us that perhaps Lissie doesn’t even covet such rarified status, preferring instead to create songs for the listeners who will discover true meaning, redemption, and solace deep within them. A noble calling, and one that Lissie continues to embody with dignity and passion in no short supply.