Country/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.
Like Cowboy Junkies, Carpenter believes that the quieter she sings the clearer her angst will get across. But whereas that Canadian outfit value leavening humour, she places faith in unremitting earnestness. It’s often affecting, and draws you in at times, but somewhat smothering in its unrelenting glumness. There’s also a paucity of fresh melodies here.
This profoundly personal album is unlikely to woo passers-by, but loyal, long-time admirers will adore it.