Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sixth album, A Place In The World, released in October of 1996, charted at #3 on the Country Albums chart and at #20 on Billboard’s 200 following two of her most successful albums, Come On Come On and Stones In The Road. Mary Chapin penned all the songs and co-produced the album with John Jennings as well. However, I wonder if its chart success wasn’t a direct result of the success of those previous two albums rather than the overall quality of the album itself. There are some good, and even great, songs on this album, but there are also some that don’t quite measure up to the standard Carpenter sets on her previous records.
Four singles made it onto the charts, though they are far from the best songs on the album. ‘Let Me Into Your Heart’ was the first one and almost broke the top ten in the U.S., coming in at #11. It made it all the way to #5 in Canada. Catchy, rhythmic, upbeat, with brass and back-up singers, it has a Motown soul feel to it instead of Country. But I found it unusual that none of the lyrics really grabbed me — one of the few MCC songs that I can say that about. The unremarkable last chorus is an example:
You’re like a sweet smile to these tired eyes
You’re like the last mile on a long ride
Oh I never believed in the arms of fate
But to be in yours darling, I believe I’d wait
‘Til the end of time for a chance to start
If you’d just let me into your heart
Second to chart was ‘I Want To Be Your Girlfriend’. It only made it to #35. It’s another up-tempo number but with somewhat better lyrics and a bit of humor about how a crush feels like a crush even when you’re no longer a teenager:
You used to be just this guy I knew from that same old scene
For all the time that I’ve known you, just now I’m noticing
That everything there is to feel, feels worse than any teenage crush
And all the times that I’ve been near you, now I can’t get near enough
Someone described it as “bubblegum pop” in a 60s style which fits that teenage crush mood. Fun song, but back-to-back, light, up-tempo numbers without a lot of meat to them must not have worked after the stellar hits of the previous couple years. Carpenter’s momentum on the charts began to wane.
The next two singles, ‘The Better To Dream Of You’ and ‘Keeping The Faith’, barely charted at #64 & #58. Sadly, I think they were the better songs of the four, at least lyrically. Both were also upbeat. ‘The Better To Dream Of You’ is solid, well-done country pop of the 90s – almost a bit too formulaic perhaps – with the exception of a hint of gospel to illustrate the song’s point that the singer’s faith in love is being revived in the possibility of a current romance.
Every story’s got a chapter
That chapter will be defined
By what’s before and what comes after
This one is mine
Everything that came before us
Wore me out and weighed me down
You raised me up like a gospel chorus
Rock steady on solid ground
The better to dream of you
The better to be this side of heaven
Believing again when some dreams come true
The better to dream of you
Like an old time tent revival I felt my heart come back alive
No preacher baby, no bible, just this love to testify
‘Keeping The Faith’ is the best of the four singles in my opinion and the album opener. It has a funky rhythmic guitar intro complete with cowbell, and some great gospel piano licks. Mary Chapin’s vocals have some energy on this one, and the lyrics have more of a point than the other three.
All the style, all the money, all the power you can buy
Won’t do nothing if there’s something missing way down deep inside
It’s the weary, it’s the lonesome
It’s the forest that we just can’t see
Don’t forget now, there ain’t no one
Who isn’t trying to see beyond the trees
So, just keep keeping the faith
Keeping the faith, everyday
Well be keeping the faith
Keep keeping the faith, don’t give it away
As noted earlier, the best songs on the album were never released as singles. A good example is ‘I Can See It Now.’ It’s got more of an acoustic production that highlights Carpenter’s vocals with great guitar, mandolin, piano, and a rhythmic drive that makes me think of a person’s pounding heart when they realize the one they’re still in love with is walking toward them in a chance meeting.
I can hear it now, a breaking all apart
A strange familiar sound that’s coming from my heart
Feeling just as bad as the day that it was new
I can see it now, I’m still not over you
The repetitive melody adds to that rhythmic drive and also brings to life the line I can see it now, what’s right up ahead/ A scene I’ve played a thousand times over in my head.
‘Hero In Your Own Hometown’ would have been a better choice to release as a single. Riskier lyrically, but definitely more thoughtful while still being energetic and well-done country pop rock. The bridge into the last choruses wonderfully illustrates looking back at how youthful optimism disappears into the path of least resistance:
Everything seems so clear when you’re looking back from such a distance
When the road not taken disappears into the path of least resistance
But once upon a time oh so long ago
Underneath this same old sky every brand new road
Would know that we were heroes in our own hometown
Nothing less than heroes in that old hometown
‘Naked To The Eye’ is probably the most Country song on the album from the rhythm to the guitar work and the topic summed up in the hook: I don’t know where I went wrong, but it isn’t right to lie/Hey when you look at me baby, my heart’s wide open, naked to the eye.
I’m surprised this one wasn’t released either. My only complaint would be the heavy handed drum track. It could be turned down a notch or two without sacrificing a thing.
My three favorite songs on the record would never make it to radio, though. They’re Mary Chapin Carpenter at her reflective best.
The first of my top faves, ‘What If We Went To Italy’, is the 5th track. After the first four upbeat songs on the album, this one feels as though someone has just cut the engine on the motorboat letting the boat drift into the calm shallows. Vocally and lyrically, Carpenter paints a relaxing picture of the title’s question, and the instrumentation fills in beautifully with a bit of accordion and mandola (tenor mandolin played with that distinct tremolando sound that makes you think of an Italian restaurant). Makes me want to enter that ‘blissed out’ state she writes about!
What if we spent all of our days, improving our minds, learning new ways to be lazy
It wouldn’t be too much of a strain
Relax after breakfast till lunch comes around
Can’t wait for dinner, oh, I need to lie down
And refuel, out by the pool
What if the ancients were lazy like us
Too blissed out to paint, to sketch or to sculpt
Just as relaxed as the tower of Pisa
Not ever missing that old Mona Lisa
Carpenter tells a beautiful poetic story in ‘Ideas Are Like Stars’ about Joseph who sees the world a bit differently, but with the longing in his heart common to us all. Others don’t know quite what to make of his ideas, but they seem to sparkle just like the mystery of the stars. Reminds me a bit of the biblical Joseph who was a dreamer, too, but whose dreams made the difference. The vocals and instrumentation have a dream like quality on this one to match the story Carpenter weaves in her lyrics:
Today Joseph is sitting alone, with occasional nods to the waitress
She tops off his cup while she’s snapping her gum, making her rounds on the lunch shift
Counting out coins, he leaves them arranged, in neat lines and circles and arcs
She just stares at the tip that spells out her name and ideas are like stars
The album’s closer is also the title track and another beautiful ballad with a lovely acoustic guitar and mandola interplay that weaves between Carpenter’s duet with herself (thanks to the wonder of track recording), a string section and some Enya-like background vocals.
If there is a theme to the album, it appears to be that of longing – longing for love and longing for a place in the world. This makes the title song the appropriate ending:
What I’m looking for, after all this time
Keeps me moving forward, trying to find it
Since I learned to walk all I’ve done is run
Ready, on my mark, doesn’t everyone
Need a place in the world
Could be right before your very eyes
Just beyond a door that’s open wide
Could be far away or in your own backyard
There are those who say, you can look too hard
For your place in the world
Excellent musicians on this album including background vocals by Shawn Colvin, guitar and mandola work by Duke Levine, and the many instrumental talents of John Jennings. Definitely worth a listen and worth purchasing for the non-commercial tracks, but overall somehow not as satisfying as some of her other albums.
Readily vailable on CD or for download.