My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’

2016 was an unintentionally cruel transitional year for Gretchen Peters. In the span of twelve months, she encountered a myriad of loss — her mom, her dog, and two of her best friends. The results of the US presidential election only confounded her already fragile state of mind.

She turned to music to make sense of it all, which has resulted in her eighth album, Dancing With The Beast, eleven snapshots of gut-wrenching brilliance inspired as much by her personal misfortune and the 2017 Woman’s March, as the #MeToo Movement that swept into our collective consciousness last autumn. Female-centric perspectives lead the record and the listener on a journey both horrifically candid and deeply satisfying.

The album opens with “Arguing With Ghosts,” a meditation on the passage of time that began when co-writer Matraca Berg supplied what became the opening line ‘I get lost in my hometown’ to describe how much, and how quickly, Nashville has changed into a city she no longer recognizes. I, too, struggle with the quickness of life and find great solace when Peters sings:

The years go by like days

Sometimes the days go by like years

And I don’t know which one I hate the most

At this same old kitchen table

in this same old busted chair

I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts

“Wichita” revives the southern gothic murder ballad and the subset of songs about children, both of which were once mainstays in country music. The song is told from the perspective of Cora Lee, a mentally challenged twelve-year-old girl who uses her mama’s gun to kill a sexual predator who robs her of her innocence and takes advantage of her mother. It’s my favorite song so far this year.

The loss of innocence is the foundation for “Truckstop Angel,” which originates from a New Yorker article Peters read twenty years ago detailing prostitutes who work at roadside truckstops. She encountered just such a girl (all of 17-18 years old) in Alabama and composed the song from her perspective:

I meet them in the truckstops

I meet them in the bars

I meet them in the parking lots

And I slip into their cars

They come and put their money down

They come and place their bets

I swallow their indifference

But I choke on my regrets

 

Sometimes they ask me questions

Sometimes they treat me nice

You don’t know what you’ll get

Until you roll the dice

You’re a loser or a winner here

Predator or prey

I’m still not sure which one I am

Or how I got this way

“The Boy from Rye” details the overwhelming insecurities of female adolescence. The lyric finds a town of teenage girls in competition for the affection of a guy who rolled into town one summer with his parents and his sister. It’s horrifying how easily the teenagers surrender their bodies to him:

The girls from school in our summer tans
Suddenly self conscious and uncertain
All in a row we arranged ourselves for him
Waiting to see if we deserved him

One too fat, one too thin
One too many flaws to measure
Impossible to live inside your skin
And serve at someone else’s pleasure

**

One too strong, one too smart
But none immune to love or summer
One by one he broke our virgin hearts
And set us one against the other

We dreamed of boys and kisses on the lawn
We yearned to feel that mystery inside us
And there we were with the summer nearly gone
We’d let that mystery divide us

“Lowlands” is Peters’ take on the 2016 US Presidential election:

And the TV it just lies to keep you watching

Politician lies to get your vote

But a man who lies just for the sake of lying

He’ll sell you kerosene and call it hope

Political-minded songs, especially ones referencing our current President, can be polarizing and tiring, and Peters allows “Lowlands” to intentionally drone on-and-on Dylan-esque without a chorus or a hook; a hint of subtly nodding to her state of mind.

“Love That Makes A Cup of Tea” originated from a dream Peters had about her mother, a woman who would show her affection by baking and knitting. The lyric ends the album steeped in hope:

And there is love that makes a cup of tea

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find

“Disappearing Act” lives in the same sonic vein as “Wichita” with a mainstream-minded production adding a layer of fury to the record. The song wonderfully chronicles the frustrations of life, the yin, and yang of good and bad. The title track details a woman in a marriage where her husband always has the upper hand:

He only comes around when he pleases

He only comes around when I’m alone

He don’t like my friends or my family

He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

 

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me

If anything it’s that he cares too much

It’s only that he wants the best for me

It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

 

But he takes me in his arms like a lover

He hears my confession like a priest

He whispers in my ear, in the darkness

I’m dancing with the beast

“The Show” finds Peters with ‘Nineteen songs and one more night to go’ until a stretch of concerts draws to a close. “Lay Low” plays like a companion piece, with Peters surrendering to the voice begging her to take some time away and ‘just lay low for awhile.’ She uses “Say Grace” as permission to ‘forgive yourself for all of your mistakes.’

Female perspectives have been the hallmark of Peters’ writing for the whole of her career, whether an eight-year-old girl caught in the middle of destructive domestic abuse or a liberated wife and mother setting her husband free of their crumbled marriage. She says it’s a prism from which to view Dancing With The Beast, and while she’s been writing this way for more than thirty years, her words have never come with this much urgency.

Dancing With The Beast is as masterful as it is bleak. Peters is in a class of her own, especially now that she’s let go of her mainstream inclinations and has been crafting albums for herself and not as a vehicle for other female singers to mine for chart hits. I’m forever grateful for her immense success in the United Kingdom and the incentive it provides her to keep her musical journey alive.

She’s been one of my favorite songwriters since I began listening to country music more than twenty years ago. She’s now one of my favorite artists, too. Dancing With The Beast is among her finest work to date.

Grade: A 

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7 responses to “Album Review: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’

  1. Paul W Dennis June 14, 2018 at 8:01 pm

    “2016 was an unintentionally cruel transitional year for Gretchen Peters. In the span of twelve months, she encountered a myriad of loss — her mom, her dog, and two of her best friends. The results of the US presidential election only confounded her already fragile state of mind.”

    I have sympathy for the loss of family, friends and pets (I’ve lost both parents, many friends and countless pets over the last 15 years, but none of my sorrows would I ever attribute to election results),but in a robust democracy, sometimes the “wrong” individual or party wins and if that causes emotional trauma, that is simply too bad.

    I do think that Gretchen is a talented songwriter, and this sounds like a very interesting album. I look forward to hearing this album

    • Ken June 15, 2018 at 9:46 am

      I think you are severely underestimating the effect that politics has on people’s lives – especially the most recent presidential election. The aftermath and complete debacle that has ensued for the past 18 months has exceeded the worst fears most of us had about the election of that the most unprepared and incompetent individual in history. Every day brings another revelation of wrongdoing and disgraceful, juvenile behavior. It is difficult to not be profoundly affected. Obviously Gretchen is among the tens of millions in that category. God help us.

      Our democracy is not robust. It is severely broken.

  2. Pingback: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’ (review) |

  3. Paul W Dennis June 15, 2018 at 8:16 pm

    Democracy is robust when it is competitive and no one party dominates for too long. Ideally, each state would be purple rather than red or blue

    When one party dominates too long it tends to be very corrupt (as are most really big cities), too arrogant and tends to issue laws and regulations that are generally unwise (anything coming out of California, Oregon or much of the Federal bureaucracy. In a state like California democracy is severely broken which is why productive people are fleeing the state.

    I am no fan of Trump, who is a egotistical sociopath (much as Bill Clinton was) but he is very smart. much smarter than either Hillary or Barack and has corrected some of the excesses of the Obama administration. He certainly hasn’t reached Jimmy Carter’s level of incompetence
    .
    Like Jimmy Carter, I fully expect Trump to be a one term president. If the Democrats put up a decent candidate such as Mark Warner, they’ll likely take White House. If they veer too far left maybe the next Republican nominee gets elected

    • Ken June 16, 2018 at 9:05 pm

      Though I agree with some of your thoughts I do not consider Trump to be smart. A clever marketer and manipulator (snake oil salesman) but not intelligent. No knowledge of history. He doesn’t read. Even his staff including the former Secretary Of State and his current Chief Of Staff have referred to him as a “moron” or “idiot.” They had a front row seat at his medicine show so I believe them. That’s why we all have reason to worry. I do.

      You may dislike Obama & Hillary Clinton because of their politics but they are both highly intelligent people. Smarter than Trump could ever hope to be.

  4. Paul W Dennis June 17, 2018 at 8:28 am

    We will have to agree to disagree

    Name calling is a common flaw in modern political discourse, but calling someone something doesn’t make it true. Intelligence and knowledge are not synonymous

    • Ken June 17, 2018 at 12:39 pm

      “Intelligence and knowledge are not synonymous”

      But they should be if you are the President Of The United States.

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