Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t sure who would be interested in producing her fifteenth album, The Things That We Are Made Of, as she rarely keeps up with current trends. She met with Dave Cobb at the suggestion of her publicist and, although no musical ideas were exchanged, the pair agreed to work together. Cobb’s blind faith has resulted in Carpenter’s most interesting album in more than a decade.
The Things That We Are Made Of explores the universal truth of self, the good and bad ingredients that make us who we are as people. Carpenter begins by looking at the two sides of life and how they live congruently with one another on the gorgeous “Something Tamed Something Wild.” She follows with “The Middle Ages,” a brilliant manifesto on aging where she ponders the clarity of the past and the murkiness of the future.
She grounds those feelings in reality on the contemplative “What Does It Mean to Travel” by examining the concept of space and the transformative nature of place. Trekking often means passing through those in between places as she does with “Livingston,” a reflection on the loneliness of the journey, which she did while traversing a long stretch of highway between Montana and Denver.
Carpenter returns to the human condition on “Map of My Heart,” a jaunty exportation of resiliency. There are cracks in her façade on “Oh Rosetta,” a conversation drenched in the self-doubt that arises when we question everything, wondering what it’s all for. We learn on “Deep, Deep Down Heart” that those questions don’t have answers because at our core, human beings are flawed. I found it freeing when I realized we’ll never ‘know it all.’ Life is a constant learning process with mistakes put before us as our greatest teachable moments.
The haunting “Hand on my Back” arises from knowing human connection is the grounding force that gives us permission to stop searching. It’s the bonds with other people that help us solidify our sense of place, of belonging, the comfort in knowing we’re not alone. It’s never a permanent fix, though, as we need the restlessness (in some fashion) to keep growing.
These same themes creep up again on “The Blue Distance,” a song inspired by Icelandic writer Roni Horn. Carpenter says that Horn describes the universe as ‘blue at it’s edges and it’s depths … the color of that distance is the color of emotion, the color of solitude and desire … the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go …’ I couldn’t extract the way “The Blue Distance” builds upon “Hand on my Back” in terms of the vital need for human interaction in our lives, but I do understand where she’s coming from conceptually.
There’s venerability at the core of “Note On A Windshield” that gives the song a purpose. We’d like to believe we’re all that person brave enough to go out on a limb, fight the fear of exposure, and take the risk. The song is about choosing a life with even the smallest intent, making sure you still have that something to believe in, the thing giving your days meaning.
The final cut, the title track, is a classic Carpenter ballad – slow and steady with her voice barely quivering above a whisper. It’s her signature technique, an art she’s perfected for more than thirty years. “The Things That We Are Made Of,” in Carpenter’s eyes, is the themes of the record. She brings the album full circle, proving that life is ever changing. We may figure some things out, but they’re not meant to stay that way forever.
The Things That We Are Made Of is a fully formed perfectly sequenced whole being best enjoyed in one sitting. It’s a journey worth embarking on, as Carpenter dispenses universal truths from a place of wisdom, as a woman who’s lived a life rich with experience. This isn’t a return to her country form, nor is it without dense production values overwhelming the second half. But it is Carpenter’s most exquisite piece of original work in more than a decade. She has something to say and has found an articulate way of expressing it. I certainly cannot fault her for that.