I remember the first time I heard Lucinda Williams. It was in the mid eighties and she was opening for the Cowboy Junkies at a converted movie theatre in Vancouver. Even though she had a following in the States, she was relatively unknown in Canada, and before she came on stage with only an acoustic guitar between her and the audience, I’d never heard any of her music before. It was one of those experiences in life that’s almost impossible to do justice to in writing. Anticipating nothing, I was completely unprepared for the power of Williams’ performance as she sang of jilted lovers and stolen moments spent peering into the windows of houses by the side of the road. It was a pure experience, unspoiled by the imposition of hype or expectation. Since then, of course everything has changed and Lucinda Williams has – deservedly – gone onto become one of the most respected roots musicians in the world today. Yet, despite some great and fearless music, every album she’s put out since ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ has been buried under the weight of her own mythos – to say nothing of critical expectation - and I wonder if I’ll ever be able to hear her in the same way as I did when her songs first burst into my world so many years ago.
Devon Sproule is no Lucinda Williams. At least she isn’t yet. And, it’s certainly not my intention to jinx anything by inferring in any way that the two singers have a lot in common, or that Sproule is a country blues icon in the making. Rather, something very close to the same rush of pleasure I had that night when I first heard Lucinda Williams came to me last Saturday when I put on ‘Don’t Hurry for Heaven’ while cleaning the house. The opening lines of ‘Ain’t that the way’ caught my attention with their sheer unaffected weightlessness – “I asked God for a good job. He put me on a plane. All of the people that I love, the people that I’m from are far away.’
While these are certainly not the most profound lyrics in the world, something in the way Sproule sang them caught me by surprise and made me smile. It had been a long time since I’d heard such an assured and unselfconscious voice. I stopped working and ran downstairs to my office to find the publicity material that came with the CD, so that I could learn more about this unexpectedly bright and endearing singer. But, as I came upstairs, one sheet in hand as she sang’ The neighbor baby in the mud, Getting dirty in the sun, The washing on a wire, potatoes in a tire’, I stopped and decided I didn’t want to know anything at all about her – at least until I finished listening to the CD. I didn’t want anything to come between me and the songs. For once, I was going to let the music do the talking and make the necessary introductions. My mind that always rushes to make connections and comparisons temporarily suspended its obsessive categorizations, and I let Sproule’s unaffected singing voice and simple songs simply wash over me. For once, I wasn’t judging. It’s not that I felt I was listening to ‘the next big thing’ or the greatest songwriter since Bob Dylan – it was something far more than that. I was simply enjoying listening to someone who obviously loved to sing and write songs.
The word ‘exuberant’ kept coming to me as I listened to this record again. On every track, Sproule sounds so light and sprightly in her approach that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Yet, she’s no fragile dilettante without any musical chops to back herself up. Each song is wonderfully produced and played, striking the perfect balance between the vocals and backing music. Sproule’s obvious love of many different kinds of music make the songs on ‘Don’t Hurry for Heaven’ difficult to pigeon hole. Some songs – such as the lovely ‘Julie’ that evokes longing for a missing friend – wouldn’t sound out of place on a Joni Mitchell record while the title track sounds like an undiscovered Cindy Walker gem. ‘Good to get out’ has a kind of Shawn Colvin vibe that’s very appealing, and what could have very easily been an absurd cover of the Black Uhuru classic, ‘Sponji Reggae’ is an unaffected and unexpected delight. Using only Robbie Shakespeare’s original bass line as a reference, Sproule re-imagines the song as a bluesy Tinariwen desert groove and emphasizes the vocals in such a way that the song becomes a plea for an artist’s right to follow his or her own path and create without restrictions.
Listening to Devon Sproule isn’t going to make anyone uncomfortable. ‘Don’t Hurry for Heaven’ isn't going to start a revolution, nor is it going to lull anyone to sleep. Rather it is a collection of songs from a free soul who obviously loves what she’s doing, and she does it very well. Modest in its reach, joyful in its execution, these are songs that love to be heard as well as sung. ‘Don’t Hurry for Heaven’ makes me feel good, and fills my soul with hope. In the end, Devon Sproule might remind you of why you read reviews on sites like NoDepression, and take you back to the feeling of discovery and joy that got you hooked on music in the first place.