God is watching you. When you walk out of a record store without a Sam Phillips record, God is watching you. When you skip over a review of a new Sam Phillips record, God is watching you. This holy scrutiny is more Ms. Phillips’ trip than mine. I’m just paraphrasing the last overtly religious song this singer-songwriter wrote back in 1987, “God Is Watching You” (from The Turning ). It was co-written by her husband, T Bone Burnett, renowned pop producer and allegedly the man who swayed Bob Dylan to become a Jesus freak in the late 70′s. In “God Is Watching You,” we’re told God watches us when we’re born and when we’re both in and out of love. He watches in the middle of the night. He peers at us when we’re dancing or hiding or winning or losing or standing in judgment of a friend.
Feeling paranoid? At least God must watch Sam Phillips just as closely as the rest of us. When the woman recorded Christian pop in the 80′s under the name Leslie Phillips, He watched. Ditto when she released four secular albums after The Turning under the name Sam Phillips. The Lord was watching when Ms. Phillips was nominated for a Grammy in 1994 for Martinis and Bikinis . When she left the ceremonies empty-handed, God saw everything she did when she got home. And now, God watches as Sam Phillips releases a “greatest hits” package of her uniquely disturbing pop, Zero Zero Zero (Virgin).
I hedge on “greatest hits” because more than half the cuts are either new songs, new versions of old songs, alternate mixes or flat-out remixes. Ms. Phillips defends editing her work in a press release by quoting author and fellow God-aholic Annie Dillard, who apparently never releases a book right after it’s finished but “puts it away for a year.” “And only … after critical rereading will she allow it to be published,” she writes. ” Zero Zero Zero is like a director’s cut of my last four albums.”
Wait a minute. There’s a difference between tabling a work of art and releasing a director’s cut. A cynic may feel that Zero Zero Zero is just a contractual obligation to Virgin Records. With good reason. “This is a good way to fulfill my contract with Virgin and gain my freedom,” Ms. Phillips confirmed over the telephone earlier this winter. Regardless of this business move, Zero Zero Zero is a brilliant pop record as well as being perhaps the first “greatest hit” collection that has the integrity and cohesion of a concept album.
If you were to first hear it as background music over dinner at, say, the Odeon, you would think Zero Zero Zero is merely pleasant Beatlesque pop, borrowing from songs like “Eleanor Rigby,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane” and “Blue Jay Way,” with a little of that jungle percussion sound Tom Waits gets in his albums thrown in (see Bone Machine ). But then Ms. Phillips’ paradoxically ascetic yet sophisticated voice gets under your skin. No one sounds quite like her. She’s a cross between Lesley Gore and Marlene Dietrich. Or try picturing Tina Brown as a pop diva, rather than a media maharani. Imagine her clipped corporate voice singing of the “cobweb of enterprise.” Of course, the former editor of The New Yorker is too intimate with sophisticated power to view Manhattan through any “sentimental prism.” But in private, we aren’t surprised to hear her admit she has a “frozen sea” inside her, are we?
All right, Tina Brown is Tina Brown and Sam Phillips is Sam Phillips, and the road to hell is paved with more bad metaphors than good intentions. Actually, I always thought Ms. Phillips’ most seductive song was called “Cruel Intentions,” but now I see it’s titled “Cruel Inventions.” As in the rack, or the cat-o’-nine-tails. It would be perfectly apt to conjure Ms. Phillips as some kind of musical Madame de Sade, but neither Tina Brown nor the Marquis’ bride would ever sing a song as delightfully goofy as “Animals on Wheels,” a Chuck Jones-style cartoon hoot that is either about driving on another planet or driving in Los Angeles … or perhaps a Christian view of secular humanity approaching the apocalypse.
I’m no theologian, but I detect a Christian subtext in most of Zero Zero Zero ‘s songs. In “Lying,” Ms. Phillips sings, “If I said I believe my eyes/ And science can move my soul/ If I said I’m not afraid to die/ And I don’t need you/ I’d be lying.” That “you” could be someone like John Lennon’s hallowed Dr. Robert or Lucy in the Sky, but I think she’s addressing Jesus Christ. And in the next verse, she changes “you” to “he,” singing, “If I said the way he looks at me/ Doesn’t make me want to undress/ I’d be lying.”
Ms. Phillips also seems capable of having sympathy for the Devil. “Fighting With Fire,” for instance, is about a man who “wants to purchase the soul of every man.” Fat chance this is just another Virgin Records executive. In fact, she sings “money is the only thing he has” in a voice so uncanny and pagan, you realize how ironic the claim is. Money cannot insure love, health and happiness, of course, but those items are all attracted to cash.
So, Ms. Phillips’ secular work slyly praises God while simultaneously acknowledging the seductive power of Satan. But on the phone, she doesn’t want to talk about religion. She gets hammered about her damn Christian pop records with every new Sam Phillips release. Nowadays, her singing is more influenced by Nat King Cole than Jesus Christ. As for Zero Zero Zero , she calls it “a pretty useless record, I think.” What? She explained: “As the world becomes more utilitarian, and it becomes important to live your life inside … I think the useless and the secret and the mysterious are the only hope.”
On those terms, Zero Zero Zero is brilliantly useless. With her contractual obligation fulfilled, Ms. Phillips said, she wants to “forget about the music business and go into my own world. Make a new record. And then figure out where it is appropriate to be.” But now that she has transfigured the “useless,” she should tackle the “secret” and the “mysterious” by recording an overtly Christian pop album that continues her elevation of cold sophistication into well-bred rapture.
Let’s put it another way: O Lord, Sam Phillips is watching you.