Sticking to your skin

“You have to embrace the ugly and the harsh and celebrate it, and realize it has a purpose in the grand scheme of things. You don’t rail against it blindly and with rage. You have to take tactical measures to bring about the light.”

That’s Indigo Girl Emily Saliers in a recent phone interview from somewhere on the road in the Rocky Mountain West. She’s talking about her duo’s penchant for wielding gorgeous word images of dreamy but devastating precision to describe painful emotions, brutal environmental annihilations, bitter social injustices.

The Indigo Girls’ brand-new CD is no exception. All That We Let In — penned alternately by Saliers and her musical partner of more than two decades, Amy Ray — strikes a hard-won balance between the personal and the political.

“Perfect World,” the album’s first single, is a classic-rock-inspired tune written by Ray about the manmade lakes she swam in as a young girl in Georgia.

“I grew up swimming every weekend in one of those lakes … riding nude with my first girlfriend in a canoe,” Ray has noted about the song. “Then when I was in my 20s, I heard about how some Indian burial places had been flooded by the TVA to make those reservoirs.

“[The song is about] having a good time and not paying attention to what’s going on in the world, and then realizing you can’t do that.”

Saliers wrote the album’s title track in part about an activist friend who was killed in a car accident. Yet despite the song’s inherent sense of tragedy, its lyrics strike a positive note: “Dust in our eyes our own boots kicked up/ Heartsick we nursed along the way we picked up/ You may not see it when it’s sticking to your skin/ But we’re better off for all that we let in.”

The Indigo Girls’ signature sound — message-heavy power folk — remains the same after 20 years. Yet All That We Let In, their 11th release on Epic, also marks somewhat of a departure for the duo: a little less folk-rock, a bit more electric and multi-layered. The new album’s distinct pop-rock vibe even includes echoes of ska and hip-hop.

Their songs have always been marked by a fiercely intelligent lyricism and pretty melodies that snake under the skin in the best possible way. Saliers is the first to admit, however, that the duo is not without its detractors.

“To be honest, we hope to do what we do in a beautiful way, but we have a lot of critics who can’t stand the earnestness of our message,” she reveals. “I think some people are afraid of sincerity.”

For those who aren’t, consider the raw poetry of these lines, from “Watershed” (Nomads Indians Saints, 1990): “Twisted guardrails on the highway/ Broken glass on the cement/ A ghost of someone’s tragedy/ How recklessly my time has been spent/ They say that it’s never too late/ But you don’t, you don’t get any younger/ Well I better learn how to starve the emptiness/ And feed the hunger.”

“Good music,” ventures Saliers, “makes you feel more than the lyrics are expressing; I want our music itself to be the vehicle for the content. The music that moves me the most takes me places I’ve never been before.”

One such destination for Indigo Girls listeners is the political battlefield. Ray and Saliers are well known for their uncompromising stance on the environment, women’s and Native American issues, and gay/lesbian rights.

“There’s a constant struggle to maintain human dignity,” Saliers notes, when talk turns to this country’s current gay-marriage brouhaha. “There are strong, powerful forces at work, and that’s why community activism is so important. We have to realize we can affect change.

“I’ll be reading a paper in San Francisco and see that President Bush wants to mess with the Constitution, and I’ll be crying in my coffee at first,” she continues. “But then I’ll just stop and call Amy and say, ‘What can we do? How can we help?'”

It’s difficult to marry political activism with music — one or the other usually suffers. Sure, a tune like Country Joe McDonald’s “The ‘Fish’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” cryptically drives home the horrors of the Vietnam War (“Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why/ Whoopee! We’re all gonna die”), but where’s the hauntingly lovely melody of, say, “Cordova,” a Ray-penned paean to activism in the Native American community?

Saliers admits that it’s challenging to write strong, articulate political songs without compromising craft — yet that struggle is necessary. “We cannot separate our politics from our art,” she emphasizes. “We’ve been activists for a long time.

“But for as many songs as have political content, there are personal ones, straight-up love songs,” she adds. “Or songs that are just thinking about the journey — this journey we’re all on.”

Then there are the songs about the end of the journey — the songs about home. A sense of place pervades all the Girls’ music, in the rich cadences of the melodies, in the verdant poetry of the lyrics.

“North Georgia has a soft, quiet beauty,” Saliers says. “It’s not majestic like the Rockies. It’s hard to articulate that kind of beauty, but it absolutely affects the way you write — not only the content, but the sensibility.

“Amy lives out in the woods, and many of her songs are written about her neighbors, or the lay of the land. ‘All That We Let In’ is centered around my neighborhood: I live near a park and near a cemetery. There’s that juxtaposition of life and death — the physicality of both — and the beauty of both places.”

[Freelance writer Marsha Barber is a regular contributor to Xpress.]

The Indigo Girls play the Asheville Civic Center’s Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Friday, March 5, along with Cordero. Showtime is 8 p.m.; tickets cost $25-$35 (call 251-5505). Info: 259-5544.

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