Have you ever thought about what Philip Roth was thinking when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize? Singer-songwriter Amy Rigby has. She even wrote a song about it, imagining the email that Roth would fire off to Dylan. (“When you’re standing in the spotlight where you’ve always been/I’ll be alone with the pen, alone with the pen.”)
“I kind of felt like probably a lot of us feel about Bob Dylan—not angry at him, but we will never be him, to have the depths of his talent,” Rigby says. “I felt like even Philip Roth would have to shake his head and say, ‘For all the hard work I’ve done, for all the body of work I’ve created, I just can’t touch that guy.’ He just looms so large.”
The song opens Rigby’s new album Old Guys, her first solo record in 13 years. It’s a welcome return for Rigby. The singer-songwriter was an indie darling in the ’90s, particularly with her solo debut in 1996, Diary of a Mod Housewife. She’s collaborated on several records with husband Wreckless Eric. The last record they did together was 2012’s A Working Museum.
Old Guys sees her confronting age, death and loss head on, particularly on the title track, which along with “Bob,” were two early songs she wrote and helped her establish the lens for the record.
“Over the last 10 years, I was starting to lose friends—not just musical heroes, but people that I worked with and were really important to my musical life,” Rigby says. “I didn’t want it to sound mopey and sad, but more of a gratitude sort of thing, like a celebration, and have a bit of sadness.”
This vibe carries through all of the record. Much of the lyrics have a strong sad bent, yet are performed behind a mostly upbeat fuzzy rock sound. She delivers the words with her weathered voice, which hides the depth of emotion to a certain extent.
The track “Playing Pittsburgh” is a seemingly sad song about her perpetual disappointment of playing in that city, which she grew up in and left at age 16. She always feels like homecomings are underwhelming, and the shows for whatever reason are not that great. Yet the music for this song is peppered with a pride in Pittsburgh you might not expect from someone expressing this level of sadness. (“I’m playing Pittsburgh tonight/I got the hometown blues.”)
“Something about the music made it feel like Pittsburgh in a positive way,” Rigby says. “I was looking for the sound of a crowd at Pittsburgh sporting event, people cheering, like you felt you’d gone to Pittsburgh Stadium to see a Pirates game or something.”
What it creates is an album that is highly reflective without being soaked in sentimentality, nostalgia or bitterness. Her earlier work was known more for its emotional rawness. Her new album is subtler. This is something Rigby attributes to working with her husband for so long, and also to living in France some years back and getting used to expressing herself to an audience that didn’t speak English.
“I was just starting to feel the expression that comes out of playing notes and volume and sound,” Rigby says. “I was falling in love with the guitar. In the past I saw it more as a tool I needed to write songs. It was liberating.”
It was this more impressionistic approach that moved the record into a new direction. On the surface, the record seems confessional, and it times that’s a major element, but Rigby approached the songs—even the ones intimately about herself—as an abstract project of projecting images into the words.
Even in that opening track, where Roth fires off at Dylan, there’s an odd ending where after Roth speaks his mind to Dylan, Rigby acknowledges the contradiction of Dylan both being an epic person that exists in a higher plane than the rest of us, and a symbol for all of us. She expresses this complex idea by repeating “Spartacus” as the song concludes.
“Spartacus is the slave that represents all the slaves. It wasn’t about him. He was doing it for everybody,” Rigby says. “That was just so perfect to me. The word sounded good, but what it meant was even more what I wanted it to mean.”
Amy Rigby plays at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 24 at Michael’s on Main, 2591 Main St., Soquel. $15. 479-9777.