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Record Reappraisal: Indigo Girls – Rites of Passage

Elizabeth Gibson celebrates Indigo Girls’ joyous, adventurous fourth album and their remarkable career

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Released May 1992 via Epic

Indigo Girls were one of a number of folk-rock groups taken on by major labels in the late 1980s and early 1990s following the success of the likes of Tracy Chapman and Suzanne Vega. What may have initially been viewed as a passing fad blossomed, and the ’90s arguably saw folk and crossover music being recognised in the mainstream to the greatest degree since the swinging ’60s. Indigo Girls not only flourished but thrived for three decades and are still performing and releasing new material. With appearances on major talk shows, iconic music videos and their relentless outspokenness, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers demanded from the beginning to be seen and heard.

And so they should be. Their music is at best excellent, and even the songs that don’t linger in the mind are well-crafted and feel honest. You get the distinct impression that Ray and Saliers are incapable of putting out a song they know is mediocre or filler — they just would not be able to bear it. This brings us to Rites of Passage. Released in 1992, it is their fourth album, but as their early records were released so closely together — pretty much annually — there is still the sense of a young, raw band.

The two members write almost totally separately, and a song will be known to fans as either “an Amy song” or “an Emily song”. However each usually lends her voice and guitar skills to the other’s tracks, producing gorgeous cacophonies of sound. Amy is generally the rocker, and Emily the jazzier, bluesy artist. In this album, however, both do some experimenting, with very positive results.

Amy’s Rites of Passage songs have a Celtic feel, especially ‘Three Hits’ and ‘Chickenman’. In ‘Cedar Tree’, she perhaps lays it on too thick: it’s cheesy but still pleasant on the ear. A hallmark of an accomplished artist is being able to create a parody of something that is actually also a brilliant example of the thing in question, and Amy demonstrates this with ‘Nashville’, a play on the distinctive style of country music that was popular in the titular city when Amy went to university there. She wasn’t happy and left, and the song conveys her frustration — yet she works in the harmonica, fiddle and accordion to create a piece of real beauty.

Amy’s main hit from this album was ‘Joking’, a jangly, angsty reflection of a more carefree time: “I was wide-eyed and laughing, we were dancing up to the bright side.” It is the rockiest and closest to her usual vibe, full of furious, rugged emotion. Finally, the low, intense ‘Jonas and Ezekial’ has some of her strongest writing, every line feeling important. “In the war over land where the world began, the prophecies say that’s where the world will end, but there’s a tremor growing in our own backyard…”

Emily really seems to grow on this album. In previous records she went for gentle ballads, which she handled well; here she embraces a faster pace and rhythmic style. ‘Galileo’ has a slightly bizarre premise based around reincarnation but is bouncy and moving and gave Indigo Girls one of their biggest hits. The video is brilliant. ‘Let It Be Me’ is a catchy protest song: “The darker the ages get, there’s a stronger beacon yet…”, and ‘Airplane’ is a great tune, but still it feels like it could have been more thoroughly developed.

When Emily does do ballads, she goes bigger and better: ‘Love Will Come To You’ is a ballad on an epic scale, building up into an explosion of harmonies, and ‘Virginia Woolf’ is similar. ‘Ghost’, a fan favourite, is orchestral and grand. The album’s one cover is ‘Romeo and Juliet’; while Indigo Girls have turned out better covers over the years, notably their take on Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up In Blue’, Amy’s take here on the Dire Straits classic is nonetheless striking, with a tenderness and a quiet passion.

The way such different artists as Ray and Saliers can pool their talents to create a cohesive, meaningful and uplifting album is something really special. Their contribution to music has been immense, and if you’re new to them then Rites of Passage is the perfect place to start.