When Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers set out to make their seventh studio record, one of them wanted to rock out while the other wanted to go back to their folk roots.
So the two singer/guitarists split the difference and came up with Come On Now Social, the most divergent Indigo Girls record yet. Released in September, the album's songs range from Appalachian roots-folk to in-your-face rock 'n' roll. At times, Social even feels like two solo albums on a single disc.
"We are polar opposites, but I think we inspire each other to grow,'' Ray, 35, said from a Las Vegas tour stop about herself and Saliers, 36, who have been playing together for 20 years.
With Ray's recent announcement that she's planning a solo album of punk and country tunes, the question buzzes among the duo's fans: Are the Indigo Girls breaking up?
"Definitely not,'' said Ray, usually the harder-edged of the two, but the one who wanted to get folky this time. "We love this new band, and Emily and I love working together.''
The band she was speaking about is Sinéad O'Connor's backup outfit, Ghostland, which formed the musical spine of Social.
Ghostland especially the band's drummer, John Reynolds, who co-produced the album with Saliers and Ray have helped the Indigo Girls find a new, pumped-up sound.
Indigo Girls manager Russell Carter said they hired Ghostland "to push themselves creatively and not stay static'' as they try to capitalize on the momentum they picked up in three years on the Lilith Fair tour and expand their appeal beyond their hard-core fans.
Social is doing well on the adult-contemporary charts, which Carter said represent the Indigo Girls' primary fanbase. But it's selling more slowly than its predecessor, Shaming of the Sun (1997), which debuted at #7 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. Social, released in September, debuted at #34 and fell off the chart last week.
Although Social continues a trend toward increasingly complex arrangements that began with the Indigo Girls' fourth studio album, Rites of Passage (1992), it sounds different from any of their previous albums.
It also marks an evolution in the songwriting of the duo, who began playing together under the name Saliers and Ray in Decatur, Ga., in 1980. In 1983, while attending Emory University in Atlanta, they changed their name to the Indigo Girls.
Much of the earlier, hallmark Indigo fare was written when Ray and Saliers were angst-ridden 20-somethings. Social's more political, less insular material was written by two women who seem acutely aware of the world around them as they enter middle age.
Ray's most poignant contribution, "Ozilline" (RealAudio excerpt), focuses on her 94-year-old grandmother and the cycle of life and death.
"I am still really terrified about that death thing,'' Ray said. "My grandmother believes in life lessons. That subject is hard stuff for me but it's like I wanted to write about it, because I need to learn it. It's my lesson.''
Ray said she has worked hard to turn her writer's eye outward.
"It's been so important for me to move beyond introversion and melodrama,'' she said. "I don't want to write another song about unrequited love and frame it like another love song. I want to use unique images and frame things using the politics and everything else I see happening around me."
Two of Saliers' songs the rocking "Trouble" (RealAudio excerpt) and the unlisted track "Philosophy of Loss" take on organized religion's stance on gays and lesbians. Her "Cold Beer and Remote Control" looks at the world from the view of the working poor. Ray's Celtic-inflected roots track, "Faye Tucker," explores the hypocrisy of the death penalty.
The album opener, "Go" (RealAudio excerpt), a call to political action marked by grinding guitars, was a long-stalled song Ray finished after three Southern high schools canceled free concerts the duo planned for students in 1998. One principal was reacting to community protests over the Indigo Girls' homosexuality; two others said they were concerned about their foul language. (The Indigo Girls plan to schedule more free high-school concerts in 2000.)
The Indigo Girls have been on a fall tour with Ghostland minus Reynolds, who was not available, although he did play some Lilith Fair dates with them during the summer.
After a holiday break, they'll resume touring for most of 2000, including a swing through Australia, parts of Europe and possibly Japan. The Indigo Girls also plan a monthlong Honor the Earth 2000 tour in the U.S. next fall to benefit an American Indian foundation they co-founded. Ray said she hopes Ghostland will be along for the whole ride.