This week, singer song writer Mary Chapin Carpenter releases her 14th full-length album, The Things That We Are Made Of.
From her early career in Washington D.C., Mary Chapin Carpenter’s poetic song writing style and soft voice caught the attention of audiences and the music press alike, winning her four consecutive Grammy Awards from 1992 to 1995. Her 1992 album Come On Come On sold over 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, and placed her career as a country singer (a tag she was never entirely at ease with) on a sound footing. Although the success continued, her song writing took on a sharper edge and began addressing social and political issues. Her 2004 album Between Here and Gone, was widely acclaimed, despite the departure from mainstream radio-friendly songs; and in 2007 The Calling, with even more overt political commentary, received even more widespread recognition. Performances in the U.K. soon followed and her hold on a European audience was set. 2014 saw her record and perform an orchestral retrospective, Songs from the Movie, and her albums to date have yielded over 14 million sales.
The Things That We Are Made Of is produced by Producer of the Year Grammy-nominee Dave Cobb; who’s open, explorative approach to the sessions provided the perfect balance for Mary’s poetic, often biographical, always fascinating lyrics. That highly successful pairing is in evidence from the very start as the gently upbeat Something Tamed Something Wild opens the album with the acoustic/electric combination of Mary and Dave’s guitars and, of course, her immediately recognisable, mellow vocals. It’s a strong opening that contrasts sharply with the rich fullness of her 2014 orchestral arrangements; the gentle wash of Mike Webb’s Mellotron and the softly soothing rhythms of Chris Powell’s percussion and Annie Clements’ bass creating a comparatively stripped-back sound that nonetheless, leaves no sense of a void in need of filling. To accompany the introspective riches of the opening track we’re led to The Middle Ages where unsettling realisations are laid open, shared, analysed; alongside Dave Cobb’s subtle, multi-instrumental atmospheres.
Continuing the theme of a journey through life, the beautifully mellow What Does It Mean To Travel takes on the freedoms and restrictions, losses and gains of a nomadic existence with a sleepy, lulling vocal delivery.
Carpeneter’s lyrical skill allows her more than one method of looking back, though. In Livingston, this consummate story teller fills the space available with a continuing train of thought, painting a vivid, cinematic picture
don’t need a cowboy hat, just a ’33 Gibson
and a little more time to make it ring
The pace increases and the sound expands for the flurry of searching questions in Map of My Heart. Jimmy Wallace guesting on keyboards and a richer, fuller guitar sound bestir the rolling, cascading vocal.
By this stage of the album it’s clear that just as the songs, and their continuing themes of self exploration, trace a journey; that journey is reflected in the album as a whole, with each carefully crafted song taking us a step forward. The quest would be incomplete without a reference to the socio-political themes that have influenced Mary’s song writing for almost two decades. Oh Rosetta searches for assurance about the challenge of reflecting those times through the power of song, imagining a conversation with gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
If I listen and I cannot hear the music
If I swim against the current and lose sight of the shore
If the world is offered goodness but doesn’t use it
Oh Rosetta, what’s it for?
The uncertainty continues, but approaches resolution, in Deep Deep Down Heart and Hand On my Back. The sombre piano of Deep Deep Down Heart is matched by Mary’s equally dusky vocal; while the contrasting freshness of acoustic guitar hints at a brighter outlook. The fearlessly introspective poetry of Hand On My Back seeks solace in assurances that love brings.
I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back
Together, the songs provide a timely reminder of the deftness applied in combining the lyrical and musical content to full effect. Smooth and reassuring, The Blue Distance sees those deep piano tones rise to meet a brighter horizon.
Always heralded as a gifted poet and lyricist, Mary leaves us wondering whether she’s been hiding a still greater ability all these years. Note On a Windshield is without doubt one of the most powerful, vivid and colourful pieces of story telling you could hope to find on an album. A strongly poetic, beautifully descriptive lyric laden with emotion. Goosebumps or tears, take your pick; the song is real, and beautiful, truly beautiful.
So I dug in my bag for a pen and some paper
Found an envelope, tore it in half
I wrote down some words with my name and my number
And then I took a big breath
And so to the closing title track. Among soft, bass-laden acoustics Mary reaches the conclusion that we are what we are. That through all the choices, all the memories, all the questions; we live, we remember, we accept all the things that we are made of.
Any release from Mary Chapin Carpenter is significant. The Things That We Are Made Of doesn’t simply celebrate her success, it doesn’t rely on an attentive audience to numbly accept a collection of songs on their individual merits. What it does is present the listener with new songs that remind us of exactly why Carpenter is such a universally admired singer/song writer; just why again and again, we fall in love with her music.
UK Tour Dates
16 Jul – Bristol, Colston Hall
17 Jul – London, Barbican
18 Jul – Nottingham, Playhouse
21 Jul – Salisbury, City Hall
22 Jul – York, Barbican
24 Jul – Gateshead, ,The Sage
25 Jul – Sheffield, Lyceum Theatre
26 Jul – Birmingham, Town Hall
27 Jul – Liverpool, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
29 Jul – Perth, Perth Concert Hall
31 Jul – Cambridge, Cambridge Folk Festival
For full tour dates and ticket links visit: www.marychapincarpenter.com/tour/