Mary Chapin Carpenter fits in with a certain class of country artists: those who skirted the Nashville machine during or just after their commercial hit-making days. For most artists – any worth their weight in salt – loosing themselves from major label expectations has allowed them to fully shine through as artists. It’s always this practice that weeds out the chaff from the wheat. Recent seasons have found Mary Chapin Carpenter producing bumper crops since she partnered with Rounder/Zoe in 2006.
If you go into this album hoping to hear the artist who endeared herself to country radio with beat-driven romps like ‘I Feel Lucky’, ‘He Thinks He’ll Keep Her’ and ‘Shut Up and Kiss Me’, you’re going to come away disappointed. That artist is largely absent here, save for a handful of reminders she ever existed. In her place is a woman with emotions. She also has views on literature, politics, and the state of the world. But it’s the basic human emotions of love, fear, and hope that make up the bulk of The Age of Miracles.
Opening the set is’We’ve Traveled So Far’, which speaks of maturity and stopping to appreciate the road you’ve traveled. At 52, Mary Chapin Carpenter is in the second stage of her career and exploring the folkie that was hidden underneath the radio-friendly star all along. This album finds her all but completely shedding her country identity – the last glimpses of which we saw on 2007’s The Calling. In its place though is a more world-wise, sometimes moody, yet always intelligent and thoughtful woman surrounded mostly by rock and folk sounds.
Infectious melodies have always been a strong suit for Carpenter, and the ballad-heavy album doesn’t include many. Casting off your cares and making the road and the radio your company in ‘The Way I Feel’ allows the set’s most intriguing melody, while making up after a fight makes the basis for ‘I Put My Ring Back On’, with its rocking guitars and rolling drums recalls Carpenter at her own rocking best vocally.
‘June 4, 1989’ recalls the Tiananmen Square massacre through the eyes of a 17 year-old Chinese soldier sent in to control the protesters. This is Carpenter at her story-telling best. Likewise ‘Mrs. Hemingway’ recalls the life of the author and his first wife during their time in Paris. The Celtic-flavored ‘I Have a Need For Solitude’ finds the songwriter offering bits of her psyche while relaying the simplest yet most primary of our desires.
I like to think I am intelligent enough to keep up with the metaphors that riddle the lyrics of Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, especially her recent work, but even I don’t understand exactly what she’s talking about in ‘Holding Up The Sky’. The plodding melody finds a song filled wishes like ‘I want to feel what the wind feels like’ set against an overall mundane take on life: “all you can do is watch it go”. The narrator is also in love with someone and wishes the same for them. In the nearly five minutes this song takes, nothing is really said, and what is said, sounds more like support group jargon than any kind of memorable lyric. Alison Krauss provides harmony vocals for ‘I Was a Bird’. This and the superb musicianship behind the singers makes the track an elegant treat.
The Age of Miracles certainly isn’t an attempt to recapture her days in country radio’s grace – there isn’t a hit among the set. And it’s not Mary Chapin Carpenter at her introspective songwriting best. It’s somewhere in the middle. She’s surrounded by a first-class backing band that brings the music to life with their tight playing throughout. Likewise, the singer is in fine voice, gently speaking the narratives and wringing her rocking vibrato for all its got at times. It’s the selection of material – so much of it merely repeating itself – that’s lacking and not up to par for Mary Chapin Carpenter. There’s certainly much to be appreciated, but with a talent as great as hers, there could certainly be much more too.
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