Analogue Music | Indigo Girls - Swamp Ophelia
Swamp Ophelia

Swamp Ophelia

Artist: Indigo Girls · Written by Fletcher Martin

Date Released

10 May, 1994


Sony Music


51 minutes

I was talking to a fairly new friend the other day about slightly embarrassing musical loves from our youth.

On past occasions, this friend and I bonded briefly over tales of cool concerts and mutual musical loves. Bands like Built to Spill, Spoon, and others of their indie ilk, of course, but we both got excited when discussing our high school-era love for the Indigo Girls, most specifically Swamp Ophelia

As teenage males we primarily listened to the ‘cool’ music out at the time—Nirvana, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots—music that, if I look at it now, was obstinately male. But I guess if you’re a teenage male in high school there is always something to prove about your masculinity. So, it was only in the safety of certain male friends that you could admit to listening to something like the Indigo Girls or Ani Difranco. While, with a few teenage girls, such musical choices could, perhaps, even have a bit of cache.


If high school teaches you anything it teaches you to know your audience.

Indigo Girls
Indigo Girls

Anyways, it’s sad to be a somewhat closeted lover of a defiantly out pair of lesbian songstresses but, listening to Swamp Ophelia, I am forced to defy the kid in me who fears being made fun of. Because the Indigo Girls aren’t cool; in fact, in some ways, the Indigo Girls are very 'uncool.'

The unabashed romanticism of their lyrics can be borderline embarrassing, the forthrightly folk stylings of their early albums can sometimes feel a little too Christian coffee house, and their occasional forays into overt political statements often lack any subtly. But the Indigo Girls are nothing if not earnest, and earnestness, though sometimes admirable, can be a definite 'coolness' slayer.

So why then do the Indigo Girls, and moreover, Swamp Ophelia transcend these boundaries?

Because the Indigo Girls are damn good at what they do.

Swamp Ophelia was the Girl’s fifth album and, at this point, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers had perfected their two-guitar sound. The acoustic guitar arrangements on the first two tracks, “Fugitive” and “Least Complicated,” are almost symbiotic. Their instruments push and pull at each other, somehow complicating while complimenting the other and creating a new, better organism.  

The same could be stated in reference to Amy and Emily’s vocals and harmonies. The way the Girls’ voices fit together seems born out of an otherworldly familiarity. At this point in their career you could imagine them accidentally sneezing in a sort of harmony. Listen to the vocals leading up to and through the key change on “Reunion” and you can basically hear them level up in real time. This is the music that transcends any sort of label, any kind of minimization.

It doesn’t hurt that their backing band are in full force after touring and working on the previous album, 1992’s Rites of Passage. Sara Lee on bass and Jerry Marotta on drums achieved something similar to the Girls’ interconnectedness while both elevate individual moments on several songs. Marotta seems to play every beat but the downbeat on many tunes, dancing around the obvious choices, most significantly on opening track “Fugitive” where the actual feeling of beginning—or trying to begin something—comes with the stutter-stop nature of his drumming. 

Sara Lee has many superlative moments: the vocal mimicking, the upward rolling bass part in “Reunion.” Lee plays anything but root notes, it seems. And, in an impossibly simple way, the bass introduction on “Least Complicated” is so powerful, so much so that teenage me once had a favorite bassist whose name rhymes with Tara Bee. While both Marotta and Lee are anything but basic they still manage to serve the songs first and foremost and simultaneously be standouts.

You can come at me and say that the maudlin, “multiply life by the power of two” lyrics on “Power of Two” have a sort of Hallmark Channel cheesiness. And that’s fine; I’m cool with that. Because the next song, “Touch me Fall,” marks a strong shift from anything the Girls have done before. 

It’s not just the fact that the almost universally-acoustic Emily and Amy  have both guitars plugged in; this is not just a simple matter of going from acoustic to electric. (Though when other “folk” artists have gone electric the resulting shifts were seismic.) And it’s not merely the change in medium; it’s the complete tone of the song. 

There is a sultry, dark sensuality to "Touch Me Fall" that could only exist within the song-world of the Indigo Girls. The lilting accompanying strings have a vertiginous, dangerous quality that lead in to a power chord chorus; one that is downright classic-rock epic--if only a little beholden to The Who. It’s the casting shades of darkness on "Touch Me Fall,' “Dead Man’s Hill,” and “This Train Revised” that give the album a balance to even out the light folk pop.

If you don’t listen to Emily Saliers sing, “I could go crazy on a night like tonight / When summer’s beginning to give up her fight / and every thought’s a possibility,” and, shivering, be drawn back to a moment in your life when you were on the cusp of something else...then I feel a little sad for you.

That brings us to the centerpiece of the album and, to my mind, the best song of the Indigo cannon. When you write with reckless romantic abandon sometimes you get a line like, “multiply life by the power of two.” But then, if you are very lucky, once in a lifetime you get a song like "Mystery."

If you don’t listen to Emily Saliers sing, “I could go crazy on a night like tonight / When summer’s beginning to give up her fight / and every thought’s a possibility,” and, shivering, be drawn back to a moment in your life when you were on the cusp of something else, a moment when you could feel the season changing, feel yourself changing, feel the earth spinning, feel the ecstatic and transfixing mystery of life itself as presence and an energy, feel the way ancient mystics and saints felt the touch of God, well, then I feel a little sad for you.      

But this feeling is a passing one and, like Saliers sings, "to exist it must elude.” It’s easy to forget these transforming instants of life and get caught up in things like being 'cool.' But, thankfully, music like Swamp Ophelia is always there to shake us up and remind us that the world can be an unabashedly romantic and mysterious place.