Since her separation from Burnett, Phillips has been less visible, but she actually produced a huge amount of material from 2009 to 2011 as part of an online-subscription series for fans, while also making music for ABC Family’s late and sorely lamented ballet-class comedy Bunheads. That show had the same creators as the one from which you’re most apt to recognize Phillips’ voice, Gilmore Girls: Her “la la la” interludes were to that series’ aesthetic what the rubber-band bass was to Seinfeld’s.
Still, Push Any Button feels like a re-emergence. Where her last studio album, 2008’s Don’t Do Anything, wore the bruises of lost love all over, this record reaches back to the Top 40 music of her childhood to express rebirth and resilience. After her successful experiment with prolific, technology-brokered production, it returns to a live-band feel, a tight set list, and an idea of the album as a self-contained statement, with the title referring as much to emotional buttons being pushed as to the numbers on a Wurlitzer. The most upbeat moments—such as the timeless, Everlys-like skiffle of “When I’m Alone,” about rediscovering the joy of solitude after heartbreak—have the sass to merit a spot on the Slate Culture Gabfest’s Summer Strut Playlist. But they’re inevitably followed by something like “See You in Dreams,” which coils strums and strings and harmonies around a consideration of loss and death that finds its release only after some hard travelling.
One of my favorite tracks, “Things I Shouldn’t Have Told You,” is a fierce list-song of sentiments you might wish you’d never expressed to a departed lover, sung while an unseen, possibly mocking crowd relentlessly claps along. The statements she wishes she could take back range from “Your eyes could take anyone” to “The dead are alive, sometimes more than the living” to, last and most cruelly, “Don’t ever change.” But the song finds its real epiphany in a crushingly concise bridge, where she realizes: “The worst thing is that you don’t even know my secrets—you made up my mind.” At that, Eric Gorfain gets one of his few chances to stretch out on electric guitar, and his grinding slide is the sound of looking back upon a phase gone out of control. But that’s summertime, too, isn’t it?
It’s not a perfect album. It cannot claim a standout Phillips classic on the order of, say, “Reflecting Light,” from A Boot and a Shoe (also heard on the Gilmore and Crazy Heart soundtracks). You could quarrel with the sequencing of its ever-changing moods, although the title more or less invites you to fix that via shuffle. And on a record of 10 short songs, having one that adds almost nothing (“Speaking of Pictures,” a drudging Hollywood-business critique) is a substantial drawback. But over and over the album weaves dark and light, emptiness and fullness, past and present—then lets them unravel enough to admit oxygen.
Phillips is a formidable character as a singer, capable of lushness but always withholding it by a few degrees. Live, she introduces her shows by coming out on stage, blond and slim and often in black, and saying, deadpan, “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Sam Phillips.” That self-aware distance is what prevents her from being a pop star in the usual sense, as either the warm friend you feel you know or the supernatural force you want to merge with, carnally or otherwise. In ’60s-pop terms she has the bracing cool of a stone-sober Marianne Faithfull, or maybe Jane Birkin as a research scientist. Her moral questions aren’t the kind that resolve into motivational anthems. But for the twilight of a season—for a listener seeking to integrate the peak experiences of the heat and haze into the more grounded months to follow—Phillips knows just what lines to blur.