Liz Rose is the archetypal writer’s writer. Unpretentious, truthful and humble with an ear for melody and an eye for a clever lyric. She had her first hit, at the age of 37 with Gary Allan’s ‘Songs About Rain’ in 2003 but it was the collaboration with a young Taylor Swift that brought her talent to the fore. Sent to work with the dreams of a raw but obviously gifted teenager, the fusing of Rose’s world weary cynicism and Swift’s youthful, naïve, heart-on-her-sleeve yearnings helped turn Swift into a global megastar, whilst Rose remained quietly invisible in the background, which, is fairly clear, is where she likes to be. Songs like ‘White Horse’ and ‘You Belong to Me’ have changed the landscape of Country music, opening doors to a younger audience and widening the narrow confines of what is acceptable in the genre these days, like it or not.
Rose started writing ‘Swimming Alone’ back in the 1960’s, she just didn’t know it at the time, but the images of her childhood, her family’s morals and the relative prison of a rural Southern upbringing have clearly haunted her since. This is not a commercial release, Rose is not hoping for a springboard onto radio or to go out on a three month tour with Brad Paisley or Blake Shelton, no, this is her biography, her therapy and her apology – to her parents, to her friends and to herself, in musical form. It is a deeply personal record that she should be deeply proud of. It won’t have mass appeal and despite the stellar array of powerhouse writers like Lori McKenna and Natalie Hemby that appear to lend a hand on ‘Swimming Alone’ there isn’t the sniff of a single hit on the entire record because it’s not that type of record, if you want that you need to listen to the new Zac Brown or Rascal Flatts albums which are chock full of radio friendly, ambiguous lyrics designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and that is not a criticism of those records, it’s just a fact. ‘Swimming Alone’ is a confessional, nostalgic and raw piece of work that deserves to be listened to, not just put on as background music. Rose is no singer, something she admitted to from the stage at this year’s C2C Festival Song Writers night in London, when she needed the crowd’s help to carry off the high part of the chorus in ‘You Belong with Me’, but again, that isn’t a consideration on ‘Swimming Alone’, she stays well within her achievable registry and consequently provides a binding narrative a feel across the whole album.
Many of the songs deal with her childhood and upbringing. Songs like ‘Grocery Money’, (which she also performed in London at the Song Writers night) and ‘Swimming Alone’ tell the tale of a girl straining at the leash to be grown up and gone. One look at the nostalgic, sepia tinged cover of the album will tell you all you need to know about the life the young Rose must have lived. Hand to mouth, rural and isolated, all familiar tropes within the Country genre but you know damn well that Rose actually lived this life rather than appropriated it, like so many current Country artists have.
Rose clearly grew up into a rebellious teenager who ran away from home and got herself into considerable amounts of trouble. Songs like ‘Tulsa’ and ‘Letters from Prison’ reflect that mis-spent youth although it seems fair to say that it has taken her a while to find peace and grow into who she was always destined to be – the tongue-in-cheek and painfully honest ‘Ex-Husbands’ lays bare the continual travails she has had, even into middle age. When she played the song in London at the C2C Festival earlier in the year there was a palpable gasp from the crowd when Rose revealed she was currently married to husband number 4! You’ve got to admire her persistence!
The two strongest tracks on the album are wildly different. ‘Woodstock’ is the closest thing that ‘Swimming Alone’ has to a hit single. Up-beat and up-tempo it has a groovy beat with Beatles-esque overtones and the loudest electric guitar on the album. Another nostalgic song about the generation defining concert that still lives large in popular culture over 40 years since it happened. The other stand out track is album closer, ‘My Apology’. It is jaw dropping in its scope and honesty, being a literal apology from Rose to all the people she feels she may have wronged or let down in her life. A quiet, reflective song in which she apologises to her parents, her friends and even to herself. “You get older and you finally know what to say,” she sings, the benefit of age finally giving her a perspective on how selfish she feels she has been at times throughout her life.
Rose recently told Nashville Lifestyle magazine, “I write other people’s stories but it was really fun to tell mine,” and with ‘Swimming Alone’ she has done exactly that. This is not an easy listen by any stretch of the imagination, this is a late night, red wine and cigarettes album. It’s such a personal album that it will exclude some listeners with its specificity, its lack of big choruses will exclude others and it may well win an award for the biggest array of Nashville writing talent, combined units sold and YouTube views ever assembled on any given album in history which will ultimately go under the radar of 90% of Country music fans. But for the 10% that access this album, that buy into Rose’s journey and appreciate the honesty and authenticity of her writing and music it will become a much loved and much treasured gem of an album, existing as it does, both within the Country music genre and well beyond, above and outside it. Rose has scratched her itch, she has told us her tale after years of writing other people’s stories and what a fascinating tale it is too!
Twitter – @rockjames