What does it sound like?:
This isn’t a review of a new release as it came out in August. It is a review of what has probably turned out to be my favourite album of the year and as no-one else who posts to this site has looked at it, I feel compelled to review it.
I have been a fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter for some 30 years now (though I have to credit my wife with introducing her to me, after she bought the Shooting Straight In The Dark album). She released albums fairly regularly over the years, though after the peak of Stones In The Road in the mid 90s I would suggest she struggled for a long time to match that level of excellence.
Every album has had at least a couple of excellent songs on it, but her palette lacked the tonal variety of her best years and there were too many songs that were simply not memorable. There was little that excited me, though I persevered in the hope that her muse would return.
Indeed there was a huge change in 2016 when Dave Cobb produced her album The Things That We Are Made Of. The songs sparkled again. Here was an album chock full of first rate material. Great tunes with memorable lyrics. Without a doubt she had rediscovered her mojo.
Given the excellence of that album it was disappointing that in 2018 she revisited her back catalogue and re-recorded old songs for Sometimes Just The Sky (produced by Ethan Johns). It was a good album (though also the second time she had done this, as 2014’s Songs From The Movie, was old songs rerecorded and given an orchestral accompaniment), but this was treading water when I was hoping for a move forward.
The four year gap for new material has been worth the wait. I’ve been giving this album constant play and I’m coming round to the thought that perhaps it could be the best thing she’s ever done.
Ethan Johns is once again the producer and it was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studio.
These are songs of experience suffused with the wisdom that comes from learning life’s sometimes harsh lessons, but also songs that illustrate that experience does not make us any less vulnerable to life’s slings and arrows than when we were so much younger and innocent.
But don’t let me put you off with the thought that this is some sort of musical sociological thesis. It isn’t. It’s an artist using her experience to create some wonderful music where the melodies, the rhythmic structures, the instrumentation and the lyrics create something joyous. She’s created songs that I find pop into my head at all times of the day and night.
Longtime band members Duke Levine on guitar and Matt Rollings on keyboards are here, but otherwise the musicians are British and include Ethan Johns on all but one of the eleven tracks. The rhythm sections is Jeremy Stacey on drums and Nick Pini on bass, from Ethan’s Black Eyed Dogs band.
The opening song Further Along And Further In gives a good flavour of how experience has informed her writing:
“… what I chased that couldn’t be caught
Wars I lost I shouldn’t have fought…”
The quality of the melody also hits you. And who wouldn’t open an album with their best tune, you might say. But there are many more tunes and even better is to come as the following song It’s Ok To Be Sad immediately demonstrates. You might expect some minor key dirge with that title, but contrarily it’s an upbeat tune, while lyrically the song contains one of the album’s key lines:
“It’s Ok to be tired, fuck all the excuses
Whatever’s required, there’s no day that’s useless”
With the chorus emphasising that pain and hurt is necessary:
“… if you let everything in
The shadows as well as the light
How else could you know you’re alright”
Her former guitarist, the late John Jennings, is remembered in Old D-35. Fragments of memory stitched together against a tune that is a contender for the most beautiful on the album. Although a song titled after a guitar is is Matt Rollins’ beautiful piano work that is to the fore with Duke Levine’s guitar tastefully understated. A wonderful tribute to her long time band member and friend.
While not stridently political MCC has frequently voiced liberal values in her songs. She has an anti-Trump song here in American Stooge, though rather than aim for that easy target she turns her contempt to his enablers. From what I’ve read it’s directed at Senator Lindsey Graham specifically, though it covers all those who have excused his egregious behaviour. It’s the most rocking song here. Graham notably was anti-Trump until the orange one gained power at which point he became one of the premier apologists – “… he’s sucking up to the dude, he’s an American stooge…”
Before I get to my concluding remarks, there is a mystery. Last year MCC produced a single titled Our Man Walter Cronkite. It’s noted in the album credits because it was recorded with a different producer in a different studio, but not included among the songs. Given it’s not overly long at 58 minutes, I would have thought it could have been included, if only as a hidden track.
This album contains so many good things. Things that resonate with my own experience and would very likely resonate with yours. But the ten wonderful songs of the main body of the album lead us to the closing, title track Between The Dirt And The Stars. At close to eight minutes, it’s her longest to date, though the latter half of the song is taken up with a guitar solo – I’m not sure who plays it but SteveT is confident it’s Ethan Johns rather than Duke Levine.
A strummed acoustic guitar, joined by the band with the sound of the organ predominant, lead to the opening lyric – a memory of being 17 and in someone else’s car. Maybe her first love. The second verse alludes to misfortune befalling that person. Nonetheless it is just a beautiful noise. Aside from the instrumentation Mary’s singing here is just fabulous – absolutely gorgeous, emotional and very moving. It contains a lyric so meaningful and also obvious I can’t believe no one has written something like it before:
“…And if we’re lucky ghosts and prayers
Are company not enemies…”
This really is a very, very fine album. If you have ever bought a Mary Chapin Carpenter album before and liked it, buy this for yourself or as a seasonal present for a loved one. You won’t regret it.
I wrote earlier that this might be her best album. I’m going to change that. This IS her best album ever, and if you like American singer songwriters you will love it.
What does it all *mean*?
I suppose it means that a true artist can rediscover the things that you loved, that drew you in, that you have been disappointed have been absent on many occasions in the intervening years and re-emerge triumphantly with something as accomplished and meaningful and as beautiful as this album.
Goes well with…
… a night in with a loved one but also a night in on your own where you can immerse yourself in the splendour of the music and feel that your soul has been uplifted and your sense of self has been renewed.
Might suit people who like…
… that genre sometimes (lackadaisically) called Americana, but more generally anyone who likes an album that is made for adults with an appreciation of the aesthetics of great songwriting.