Review : Mary Chapin Carpenter - Ashes and Roses
PopmattersMary Chapin Carpenter is the master of the breathy earnest vocal, the kind that makes you think you will hear a revelation or at least something important every moment of the song. She uses this singing style in various ways. She can set you up for a joke one minute and then get to the serious heart of the matter the next. Usually, Carpenter executes this sparingly on her albums so when she does, it makes a big impact. However, Ashes and Roses is different. Carpenter uses this technique on every track. It’s a shtick, and perhaps it’s what she needs when singing about the private details of her life and universal truths. However, she ends up conflating the two. Sure, the personal is always political, but they are not interchangeable.
Carpenter sets the tone on the first track, “Transcendental Reunion”. She uses clever word play to offer the allegory of waiting for one’s luggage with that of final redemption in the hereafter. “Please deliver my suitcase / From all mischief and peril / How the sight of its circling / Is a hymn to the faithful”, Carpenter solemnly intones. Who among us hasn’t prayed for our baggage? The double meaning works because of its surface truth. But it’s also a bit much. You don’t have to be a believer to petition the Lord for the safe arrival of one’s stuff. Carpenter never cracks a smile so that the comparison weighs more than airlines will allow. No wonder she checked her bags. That’s a joke!
While one does not always have to signal when using humor, Carpenter usually leavens her compositions in some way. Not here. Whether she offers instructions on “What to Pack and What to Throw Away” or receives life lessons on “Learning the World”, Carpenter maintains a grave demeanor. As each of the baker’s dozen tracks move at the same pace and are the same relative length (between four and five minutes), the album can fall into a rut. That’s a shame because most of the individual cuts have merit. Together, they are less than their parts.
Even songs of promise, such as “New Years Day” and “Don’t Need Much to Be Happy”, look backwards more than forwards. Bummer. To be fair, Carpenter has experienced her share of traumas including the death of her father, a divorce, and a major illness. There is nothing wrong with using music as a catharsis, but Carpenter merely sounds sad. She is not inspired enough by surviving these to shout a barbaric yawp with joy or growl with anger at the hand life recently dealt her. She mopes. Carpenter is talented enough to turn the material into song, but she needs help taking it to a higher level....full text
TelegraphCountry-folk singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has been through a lot in the past five years. In 2007, she cut short a tour because of a sharp pain in her chest that turned out to be a pulmonary embolism. Since then, she went through a divorce and her father passed away. So her 12th album is a record of loss.
“It’s about the journey,” she said in a recent interview. “What it feels like to let go, to address grief, to feel that emptiness. To not be afraid to feel that emptiness. We spend a lot of our energy pushing things away, because it’s too painful. It’s about the place you get to when you can no longer push it away; you have to go through it.”
Reflecting that journey, the mostly acoustic album opens with a gentle traveller’s tale. Transcendental Reunion finds the singer on an aeroplane at night – detached from the busy, twinkling world below, then queuing in the impersonal banality of the arrivals hall. There’s envy for those met by outstretched arms and dry humour in her weary prayer at the baggage carousel before she heads into the day.
The melody is based on the simple, repeated rise and fall of a seven-note phrase, backed at a laid back strummed and picked pace. To be honest, it’s quite hard to tell apart from many of the other meditative, mid-tempo, mum-rock songs on the record. And yet all command attention because of Chapin Carpenter’s warm, weathered, unshowily authentic voice which has a kind of peace at its core....full text
BbcCountry/folk icon and multiple Grammy-winner Mary Chapin Carpenter describes her latest album as “about grief and loss”. In recent years she’s experienced divorce, serious illness and the death of her father, the accumulative trauma of which hurled her into depression.
A hard-hearted person might observe that the accompanying biography reads like a parody of country singers’ inspirations. But Ashes and Roses is certainly no summer breeze.
There’s a hint of respite from the gloom when James Taylor duets on the easy-flowing Soul Companion, but as his and Carpenter’s voices sound so similar, it’s barely a contrast. So this subdued album – more acoustic than her break-out hits – focuses on confessional lyrics and humble, understated vocals.
Recorded in Nashville, Ashes and Roses is produced by Carpenter’s regular collaborator Matt Rollings. On closer Jericho, just her voice and Rollings’ piano are present, as if all elaboration is now deemed superfluous and only the tattered scraps of residual emotion resonate for her.
Theoretically there’s an arc, a journey of healing, and songs like New Year’s Day and Fading Away offer glimmers of optimism, albeit the kind that quote Emily Dickinson. Any epiphany or upswing, however, is relative. From Transcendental Reunion – which eulogises, oddly, the restorative powers of a flight into Heathrow – the tone is set.
What to Keep And What to Throw Away is a candid meditation on her decision to “burn all the letters, delete all the photos” so that nothing reminds her of her ex. The Swords We Carried is another brutal analysis of the aftermath of love. Elsewhere, there are studies of mourning, nostalgia for childhood and the quest for a place to call home....full text
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