The Things That We Are Made Of

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Lambent Light Records, 2016

http://www.marychapincarpenter.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 09/20/2016

On her 1992 breakthrough album Come On Come On, Mary Chapin Carpenter artfully melded country, folk, rock and pop influences, though her true identity as a singer-songwriter always felt like the real foundation. Her writerly songs might be framed as big-boned folk-rock; hooky, jubilant country-pop; or gentle, earnest ballads, and her exuberant cover of fellow traveler Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses” managed to be fiery and luminous all at once.

The closing title track of that career-making album stood out by being different: quiet and stone-cold serious, a delicate acoustic number completely focused on Carpenter’s voice and acoustic guitar, with a touch of piano and occasional background vocals. “Come On Come On” was a standout because of its emotional content, and because its sound and arrangement was so strikingly different from most of the rest of the album.

This is instructive when considering Carpenter’s newest, The Things That We Are Made Of, because that variety of sounds, arrangements, moods and approaches is precisely what’s gone missing in Carpenter’s latter-day work (2012’s Ashes And Roses suffered from the same deficit). It’s as if she’s taken the spare, achingly solemn approach of “Come On Come On” and adopted it as her entire musical identity.

The end result doesn’t feel like an album at all; rather, it feels like a set of wise, literate, carefully-crafted poems that someone made a last-minute decision to set to acoustic guitar. There are other instruments on many of these songs, but they’re so muted and textural in function that you barely notice them. The best part of any Carpenter album is typically the lyrics, but paradoxically, with the focus entirely on her voice, the songs begin to blur together into a single wash of grey. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There are moments, of course, when her words hit hard; Carpenter is nothing if not a perceptive narrator of her own humanity. “What else is there but the voice inside your heart?” she sings in opener “Something Tamed, Something Wild”—the wildest song here, in the sense that it’s one of only two where the tempo accelerates beyond a cool slumber.

“I’m staring down the great big lonesome as I’m listening for the dwindling of time,” she sings later on in “Something Tamed,” capturing an idea she expands on in “The Middle Ages,” the focal point of this album’s lyrical concerns. “Now you see what you would have changed / If only you’d known,” she sings, “Where you’d be and to be here is very strange / Waking up alone / In the middle ages.”

The rest of the album offers variations on this theme: the travails of solitude at middle age. In “What It Means To Travel,” she says “I don’t want to be a stranger / And I don’t want to be alone / But sometimes I just want to be somewhere else / Untethered and unknown / When I am far from home.” The titles tell the story: “Map Of My Heart,” “Deep Deep Down Heart,” “The Blue Distance,” “Note On A Windshield.” These are songs of isolation and self-examination, introspection taken to the extreme.

The closing title track suggest few answers even as it offers a kind of stark beauty in lines like these: “Like the silence of my shadow when the twilight world is calling / The loneliness that knows me by the cadence of my walking / And the scar upon my elbow and the sound of my own breathing / My reflection in a window and the way I’m always leaving.”

In “Oh Rosetta,” Carpenter actually articulates the very thing this album’s grey sameness of sound suggests: that she’s lost all connection with the musical aspect of her art. “If I listen and I cannot hear the music / If I swim against the current and lose sight of the shore / If the world is offered goodness and doesn’t use it / Oh Rosetta, what’s it for?”

As much as the confident musicality of her earlier work is missed, what’s missed the most is the grinning playfulness of songs like “I Feel Lucky.” There is no more variety of mood here than there is of sound—no joy or swagger, no sense of humor, not so much as a hint of a smile; it’s all sighs and frowns and furrowed brows, somber, melancholy reflections and confessions of regret.

Mary Chapin Carpenter seems more interested these days in being a poet than a musician, and her poetry is lovely, if increasingly dark, but the musical framework she places it in here leaves few clues as to why she’s still recording albums. The music feels like an obligatory afterthought, so placid, nondescript, and thoroughly hook-free as to fade from memory the moment each track finishes. The next logical step would be to eliminate the music altogether and simply publish a book of poetry.

Rating: C+

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