As deserving as Gretchen Peters is, there’s something of a pleasant surprise attached to her induction last October into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame. She unquestionably belongs to an elite group of the very best of writers in the rootsy end of Americana, but while that style comes with a little of country music’s DNA, it’s far from pure bred. Sure, Gretchen can rightly also claim to have written songs that have been covered by several of county music’s A list, but it’s been 20 years since her Independence Day was the CMA’s Song Of The Year. As an artist in her own right, however, she’s been getting stronger and stronger and it’s with the last three or four albums that she’s hit something of a creative peak, as her highly literate, poetic songs, often shining a torch on some pretty dark terrain, stand comparison with any songwriter you care to name. Hello Cruel World from 2012 and now the new Blackbirds in particular are as good as it gets. They are just leagues ahead of what passes for the majority of contemporary country music in emotional scope and narrative terms, which given the Nashville establishments innate conservatism, adds the surprise to her, none the less welcome, recognition. So, credit where it’s due, in this case, all round.
Prior to this new release, if you were looking for one song to prove Gretchen’s merits, then The Woman On The Wheel, from Hello Cruel World should do it. It’s clear narrative about a circus act and the nightly dangers of spinning on a wheel as knives are thrown, is clever enough. Of course it’s deeper than that and we are asked if we aren’t watching in the hope that something goes wrong. At the same time it’s analogous of her life as a touring musician, which although lacks the threat of a flashing blade is still about the vicarious thrills that her songs provide. It’s perhaps fitting, therefore, that it became the title for the tour that followed that record and also for live album recorded as a result, which bisects the previous studio outing and this new one, Blackbirds.
The good news is that while Blackbirds is naturally a very different record in all sorts of ways it’s every bit as good as the previous studio album. Notably the new record features several co-writes, with three songs written by Gretchen with Ben Glover, who is a regular touring buddy. There’s also one co-written with Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, with whom she has also toured, under the banner of Wine, Women and Song and in addition, David Mead’s Nashville is also included.
Gretchen has explained that co-writing isn’t her normal way of working, but feeling a real kinship with Ben and counting on his willingness to delve the depths, she was confident it would work. Talking about the title track her current biography explains, “That song just kind of came out of us. Writing it was a lot like investigating a crime. We were sitting in my writing room and we had some lines and the chorus and we were just talking to each other trying to figure out ‘What actually happened here? What’s the story?’ It felt like we were following clues.” Once you hear it, you’ll know exactly what she means.
Then there are the guests and while several of the same team that made Hello Cruel World so successful are retained and overall it’s produced by Gretchen with Dough Lancio and Barry Walsh, who contribute guitar and keys respectively. Will Kimbrough plays on all but one track, much as he did last time around and Matreca and Suzy also sing on the song they have co-written with Gretchen, also echoing the previous release. There are some other big names with Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Kim Richey and Jerry Douglas all add their unique talents to the record with David Mead also featuring on his own song.
If you’re looking for that one defining song from the new album, then you’ll be spoiled for choice. That said, When All You’ve Got Is A Hammer, chosen as the first ‘single’ and making the BBC Radio 2 B playlist, is a superb example of Gretchen’s abilities. It’s more direct and economical perhaps than Woman On The Wheel, yet is still powerful, simmering with injustice, comparing the fate of of a demobbed GI with Jonah while highlighting the blunted rage of post conflict stress. The song is brilliantly arranged from the opening growl of baritone guitar, the boxy, almost harp like tones of the charango and finally the emotional spike of Jerry Douglas’ Dobro in the middle of the song. Lyrically it hits its mark with the little details like, “There’s a bible on the table and a bottle on the shelf,” while situation seems hopeless as she sings, “When a good man in a bad dream can’t make it on his own.”
As Gretchen herself says about the album, “These songs are stories of lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their way out of it. I think we need to talk more about that, more honestly. We throw words like ‘closure’ around as if it’s a panacea, but sometimes pain outlasts us. Sometimes it doesn’t go away. There is no way out but through.” But with it she displays that empathy and her songs regularly connect with our very human failings, as she probes the underbelly of the world and highlights the struggles that people have in trying to live their lives.
The album is bookended with two versions of the tile track, Blackbirds, co-written with Glover and a song laced with a brutal fatalism and murderous intent. If ever a song set a brooding tone to open an album, then the heavy fuzz-tone of the opening guitar riff, something Neil Young would struggle to out-grunge, is the fuel that lights this bonfire, quite literally as the story unfolds. It’s full of great lines like, “There’s shadows in the shadows, there’s trouble in the cane,” and a bit of first class alliteration in, “Uneasy lies the head – unfaithful is the heart, ungrateful and unlucky and untrue.”
It’s not the only song to make a bonfire of the heartbreak, damage and hurt, as The House On Auburn Street also symbolically is burning down. It’s a nod to Gretchen’s childhood, spending her early years in New York, but scratches at the surface of suburbia to find a needle scratching a vein and the end of innocence. It’s worth noting the contributions of drummer Nick Buda and bassist David Roe, given extra weight at the start of this song, but superb throughout.
The need to self anaesthetise also runs through Pretty Things as Gretchen opens the song with, “I knew a girl who said beauty kills, dulled the pain with wine and pills.” It’s achingly beautiful, living up to its title with the sparkling arpeggios of guitars and charango, while the sentiments are much darker as the levee breaks and the water floods in. That painkiller is there too in When You Comin’ Home, a duet with Jimmy LaFave as Gretchen points out, “Cause you got a bottle, don’t mean you have to drink.” There great use of the banjo and harmonica, while Jerry Douglas again makes a telling contribution.
There are two other songs that look at different aspects of home, Jubilee, which starts with, “I’ve got nothing to hold me here, my old friends have all moved on and disappeared.” In reality it’s a mournful, valedictory setting of things in order, but there are also the family ties and some sense of redemption as Gretchen sings, “My body’s broken but not my soul, you know it’s love and only love that’s made me whole.” Nashville meanwhile is in part a homage to Gretchen’s adopted city, yet originally recorded as part of David Mead’s highly acclaimed Indiana album, the song seems conflicted and caught between the need for home and the need to escape some emotional turmoil. The song stretches out melodically and you can easily hear the appeal as it earns its place amongst Gretchen’s own, fitting into the overall theme.
The sea also crops up in two songs, once as a metaphor for death in the wistful, piano led Everything Falls Away and then more literally with the natural disaster in the Gulf Of Mexico and the toxic Black Ribbons that result. The latter is the one co-written with Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss and they add elegant harmonies, while the arrangement is a brilliant combination of instrumental textures, baritone guitars, banjo, charango, mandola and accordion.
All of the hurt and the heartache is poured into The Cure For The Pain, a track that is comparatively stripped back, but floats along on some ethereal electric guitar that adds a ghostly grace to this most haunting song. It nicely sets up the reprise of Blackbirds, which second time around is given a more acoustic treatment, but as the piano swells the melody, the intensity of the raw and deadly plot grows ever more potent.
Talking about the inspirations for this new record Gretchen admitted to attending more funerals these days than weddings, although also noting the heightened joy that matrimony brings as a result. There’s an honesty to that and it’s the ageing process that has us all in it’s grasp, yet in Gretchen’s case it seems to have sharpened her pen all the more, as Blackbirds wears its dark heart on its sleeve and Gretchen draws on a grand tradition of documenting these noirish tales and the fragility of life in the most compelling terms. This is without doubt a brilliantly crafted record, earning Grtechen her place amongst a roll call of real singer songwriter greats and there are probably good psychological reasons why we like our singers to report from the shadows, because perversely perhaps, Blackbirds is hugely enjoyable as well. The thrill is the frisson you feel, but then, as Gretchen sings, “The cure for the pain is the pain,” so take your medicine.
Review by: Simon Holland
UK Blackbirds Tour
15 – Phoenix Arts Centre, Exeter
16 – Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne Minster, Dorset
17 – St. George’s, Bristol
18 – The Stables, Milton Keynes
20 – Royal Hall, Harrogate
21 – Town Hall, Birmingham
22 – The Sage, Gateshead
24 – St. Paul’s Arts Centre, Worthing, West Sussex
25 – Kngs Place, London
27 – The Engine Shed, Lincoln
28 – Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal
29 – Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, Merseyside
31 – The Apex, Bury St Edmunds
02 – RNCM, Manchester
03 – The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh
05 – Inchyra Arts Club, Perth
Released 9th February via Proper Records
Order via: ProperMusic (Ltd Autographed Art-Card + Exclusive, Previously Un-Released Download Track).