When Shawn Colvin wrote and recorded her fourth album A Few Small Repairs, she had nothing left to lose. The then 40-year-old singer-songwriter had been knocked flat emotionally by a divorce the year before and her label was getting restless that, in spite of her success in the folk world, she had not scored that elusive crossover hit.
With all that swimming in her head, Colvin went into the studio with producer John Leventhal and engaged in a little musical bloodletting. The resulting collection, released 20 years ago, is one of the most unapologetically grown up albums ever recorded. A Few Small Repairs does slot in with the ever-growing collection of break-up records, but one not born of tossed aside or replaced by a partner. These songs acknowledge the fault of both parties involved and the bitter stew of emotions that comes with that.
Those feelings are mirrored most potently in the way that Colvin’s unblinking lyrics cut through Leventhal’s otherwise warm production like a bit of exposed skin on a frigid day. The album is a pleasant update of the Laurel Canyon sound that begat Joni Mitchell and CSNY, with a digital polish and the occasional programmed beat urging forward the cozy acoustic guitar work, Rhodes piano, and big, round bass tones. It sounds even more crisp and present on this newly remastered edition.
Through it all, Colvin reckons with everything in her life at that moment. The primary subject is her still-conflicted emotions about the break-up. A Few Small Repairs may end with the defiant strut of “Nothin On Me” but to get there, she has to work through the controlled fury of “Sunny Came Home,” the uncertainty of “When I Was Brave,” and the confusion giving way to sorrow of “I Want It Back.” Colvin even wonders aloud about where she fits in the current musical landscape on “New Thing Now,” wondering what’s lost and gained in the “prom dress and a sneer” of the junkie chic and the hero worship of Kurt Cobain that was all over the pages of Rolling Stone at the time.
The twist is that A Few Small Repairs turned out to be a huge success for Colvin. “Sunny Came Home” went into the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 and won a Grammy for Record Of The Year. As well, she got swept along in a wave of confessional female artists that skirted that fluid line between pop, adult contemporary and alternative (Sarah McLachlan, Sheryl Crow, and Tori Amos among them) who all spent the summer of ‘97 touring as part of the Lilith Fair.
The anniversary reissue of this album is a welcome one, as A Few Small Repairs does seem to be a forgotten gem of the late ‘90s, in spite of “Sunny” still getting regular spins on the radio. But this release doesn’t go deep enough. Tacked on to the end of record are live versions of several songs from it, captured around the time of its release. And that’s pretty much it. No alternate or demo versions of the material to be had, nor do they amend the track listing to include “What I Get Paid For,” a fantastic song she co-wrote with Neil Finn that was left off the U.S. release of the album.
Not that the album needs much in the way of being fleshed out or its darker corners revealed. The beauty of A Few Small Repairs is that Colvin leaves everything out in the open and asks you whether you’re willing to pick through the rubble with her. Grab a shovel and start digging.