There’s a difference between nostalgia as fetishism and emulating a bygone tradition because it’s effective.
Consider the kind of album you’d expect from a Jack White protégé who used to perform in a traveling family band, and you’ll probably conjure up a slice of insufferable, crunchy Edward Sharpe revivalism with all the nourishment of synthetic granola. Thankfully, Illinois-born singer songwriter Lillie Mae has the chops to back up her more rustic tastes. Forever and Then Some, her debut solo outing on White’s Third Man Records, is a collection of sharp, straightforward country songs presented without a drip of irony. Their no-nonsense effectiveness calls to mind Mae’s label mate Margo Price, whose 2016 release Midwest Farmer’s Daughter managed to enthrall without pandering to the growing sense that “good” country music has to somehow feature alt-rock trappings as a badge of authenticity.
Mae’s music is steeped in the traditions of Bobbie Gentry, Linda Ronstadt, even the Dixie Chicks, and she pulls on these influences without winking at them. She’s not flipping any sort of script, nor is she using down-home imagery to pander to an untapped market (Joanne this is not). In a musical landscape so tangled by cross-reference, genre-blending and strained attempts and social importance, Forever and Then Some gives us the all-too-rare sense that we’re just listening to someone sing what’s on their mind, whether or not it’s groundbreaking.
Most often, it’s not; Mae’s thoughts don’t appear terrifically different from other singer-songwriters. She often impresses with a canny turns of phrase, as on the self-lacerating “Wash Me Clean” where she laments “There ain’t enough sky for me to fly/ Away from what’s behind the eyes,” but the album’s subject matter hews pretty close to the time-tested lost love/alcohol/depression formula—just ask the shockingly straightforward early cut “Honky Tonks and Taverns.” What makes the record special, and keeps it from becoming a Bo Burnham joke with more pedal steel, is the music beneath Mae’s words.
She first worked with White as a multi-instrumentalist member of his supporting band, a famously talented bunch that created explosive sets for White’s Blunderbuss and Lazaretto tours. On Forever and Then Some, her fiddle is thunderous. Her collaborators, including Dean Fertita of Queens of the Stone Age and her own siblings, operate at peak powers. These songs feature intricate, nearly imperceptible interplay between strings, keys and drums. In the biting “Honest and True,” guitar strums are syncopated against piano chords, creating an uneasily lurching rhythm that perfectly underscores Mae’s acidic kiss-off to a weak-willed ex: “When you’re down, know the reason/ Stop asking why.”
There’s a difference between nostalgia as fetishism and emulating a bygone tradition because it’s effective. The first devolves into a smug pissing contest, asking whose version of the 1960s features more postmodern touches; the second works because it’s a warm reminder that sometimes, people just want to take the things they love and make them their own. Of course, if pure enthusiasm were enough to make great music, then a Minneapolis cover band would’ve made Sgt. Pepper by now. Sincerity needs talent, and this marriage makes Forever and Then Some work despite its struggle to find a unique identity. It’s not a great album, but it feels like it’s exactly the one that Mae wanted to make. Down the line, maybe she’ll turn in a high-concept Britpop record featuring a full orchestra and an alter-ego, but for now, her candor is refreshing, whether or not it’s truly original.