Ashes And Roses
Zoe Records, 2012
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/21/2012
If NPR ever decided to go with just one artist for all of their between-segment bumpers, Mary Chapin Carpenter would almost certainly make the short list. Her songs exhibit precisely that kind of uncompromising intelligence, courage and sense of purpose, not to mention social awareness, not to mention she originally emerged from the Washington, D.C. folk scene.
For a time after that emergence, she stood at the forefront of a small boomlet of country-folk singer-songwriters, turning out Nashville-influenced classics like Shooting Straight In The Dark and Come On Come On. Twenty years down the road from the latter disc—her commercial breakthrough—though, Carpenter seems completely uninterested in capturing that kind of attention.
Abandoning whatever pretense might have remained at this point of being a country artist, Carpenter approaches Ashes And Roses as a pure folk album. Her deeply personal and confessional tunes are now all based on acoustic guitar and her gently sung vocals, with piano and electric guitar accents lurking in the background and little else in the way of musical accompaniment. Gone are the clever hooks and throaty choruses that powered albums like Come On Come On and Stones In The Road; what remains today is simply Carpenter’s ineffable poetry, ever-literate, ever-tasteful. Just, not catchy. Through much of the first half of the album, songs begin and end and the listener is challenged to notice; the melodies are that subdued and colorless, feeling like an afterthought to the words they are meant to support.
That said, just the title of a song like “What To Keep And What To Throw Away” is a step above the work of most other singer-songwriters on the planet; Carpenter is nothing if not a perceptive chronicler of her own journey as a person and an artist. A few tracks down the line, “Chasing What’s Already Gone” delivers sharp nuggets of wisdom about reaching middle age; it’s certainly among the standouts here. Soon after, “I Tried Going West” provides a welcome change, a midtempo tune with noticeably more drive than the six tracks it follows, and accordion for texture.
The predominant mood in the first half of Ashes is achingly serious, even somber, making the more spirited “West” an essential turning point. It and its acoustic sequel “Don’t Need Much To Be Happy” make a push toward optimism and fulfillment that’s completed with the album’s highlight, “Soul Companion.” Here Carpenter achieves what you can only imagine must have been a lifelong dream by recording a duet with musical soulmate James Taylor, a pairing that’s pitch-perfect in every sense of the word.
As the album decelerates into the final quartet of songs, Carpenter hits you with a couple of especially potent lines. First she sings of her longing for “Old Love,” “the kind that takes years / To turn to gold, burnished and seared.” Then she sings of the possibility of rekindling an old flame on “New Years Day,” drawing remembered feelings to the surface with these beautiful lines: “Like the folds of summer dresses / Like the scent upon my wrist / Like the way you played guitar / Like a boxer punches with his fist.”
At the tail end of the album the songs get quieter and quieter until by end of the piano-and-vocals closer “Jericho” you’re lulled into a state of silent contemplation. (Sort of like the opposite of listening to death metal, or watching cable news.) It’s a pleasant enough place to end up, but without the energy boost brought on by her earlier, more dynamic work. Neither the sharp edges nor the playful sass of old hits like “He Think He’ll Keep Her” and “Shut Up And Kiss Me” are anywhere to be found on this album.Instead, this is an album dominated by melancholy, most of its soft-spoken songs touched by grief and loss and unfulfilled wishes. It’s a beautiful melancholy, to be sure, just a lot more sepia-toned that Mary Chapin Carpenter’s technicolor past. Ashes And Roses is a rewarding listen that nonetheless could have been moreso if the music had been infused with the same energy and care as all those eloquent, compellingly honest words.