It’s hard to tell if this is the end of the third, or the beginning of the fourth phase of Sam Phillips’ career.
In the mid-’80s, she was a popular, if un-distinguished, Christian artist who went by her birth name, Leslie. After hooking up, professionally and personally, with T Bone Burnett, she adopted her longtime nickname, Sam, and launched a string of impeccably crafted psychedelic think-pop albums, best demonstrated on 1988’s The Indescribable Wow and 1994’s Martinis & Bikinis. After going off the rails in 1996 with the overproduced Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop), she’s resurfaced in this decade with dark, deconstructed, acoustic-cabaret music.
Don’t Do Anything shares much with its two stripped-down predecessors, but it’s also Phillips’ first-ever self-produced effort, a development explained by the fact that this is also her first release since she and Burnett divorced. As on all of her best work, Phillips is humble and open-hearted, invitingly tuneful but unsparing in her assessment of the emotional wreckage she sees. In what will surely be seen as provocations to Burnett, she asks, “Did you ever love me?” and casually reveals, “Looks like I’ve lost the love I never found.”
The soundscapes are slightly more expansive than on her two previous Nonesuch albums, but still centered around her acoustic guitar and unconventional, foot-stomping beats. It’s an approach that leaves the listener to fill in much of the picture, but it works beautifully, especially with the uncanny title track, one of the most remarkable love songs ever penned. Here, Phillips gushes that she loves her man (creator?) most when he does nothing, serves no purpose, and makes no effort to prove himself. We could say the same about her.