Kingmaker is a bundle of dynamite that should propel Tami Neilson into the stratosphere.
I bristled at the Guardian’s headline calling Tami Neilson “the queen of Kiwi country” but I get it. She’s been living in New Zealand since 2007, where she’s claimed the title of Best Country Album in the New Zealand Music Awards four times since 2009 and the New Zealand Country Music Awards’ Best Female Artist three times. She’s also had three albums up for the Taite Music Prize (New Zealand’s equivalent of the Polaris Music Prize), one of which — 2014’s Dynamite! — made the shortlist in 2015. And though Neilson will forever be the “Canadian-born, New Zealand-based” wunderkind of country music, Kingmaker, her fifth album, is about to make her star go supernova above and beyond the two countries who claim her.
Kingmaker is a “game-changer” for Neilson. She’s never been one to shy away from social and political statements, but Kingmaker coalesces her penchant for infectious melody and classic country crooning with her razor-sharp commentary and criticism. She catches fire on the album’s opening title track and keeps stoking the flames throughout the album’s thirty-two-minute running time. “Kingmaker” is a smouldering slow-burner that frames her rafter-soaring vocals with an unaccompanied reverberating guitar before strings sweep in and Neilson gets all cinematic and widescreen. “Baby, You’re a Gun” recalls classic spaghetti western arrangements with a searing indictment of the patriarchy and the ongoing erasure and suppression of women in our society.
The bluesy swagger of “The Grudge” showcases Neilson’s storytelling ability. It’s a multi-generational chronicle based on her parents’ life story of how “when you feed that pain / And choose pride over love / You’re left holding nothing but that grudge.” Neilson sings it with the conviction of someone who has been-there-done-that but hasn’t lost the quiver in her voice each time she relives the experience. Family figures prominently on “I Can Forget” and “Beyond the Stars.” On the former, Neilson delivers a heart-wrenching tribute to her late father; the latter is a showstopping waltz that pairs Neilson with Willie Nelson as lovers separated death.
As high-profile and poetic as a duet with a country music legend like Willie Nelson is, “Beyond the Stars” can’t eclipse the sheer shock and awe of the stellar “King of Country Music.” It’s a foot-stomping, hand-clapping country rap attack on those who would “try to cut the string on [Neilson’s] kite.” “Five gold trophies, it’s my inauguration,” she sings (referencing her accolades as mentioned above) as the song comes to a somewhat tongue-in-cheek conclusion, “Ain’t gonna hear me on no radio station / That’s OK, I tend to get above my station anyway.” In case it wasn’t clear enough, “Mama’s Talkin’” ensures there’s no ambiguity about who or what is in Neilson’s lyrical sites. “All the oxygen you hog while you’re playing top dog,” she tells the blowhards and misogynists, “Hun, it’s growing thinner than your hairline / Dinosaurs became extinct and that caveman way you think / Is gonna walk you off the edge of our timeline.”
Kingmaker is a testament to Neilson’s tenacity and talent. It’s a tribute to musical heroes both inside and outside her family. To paraphrase her previous album titles, Kingmaker is a bundle of dynamite that should propel Neilson into the stratosphere. Boom-Chickaboom!, indeed.
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