Mary Chapin Carpenter‘s understated new album The Things That We Are Made Of opens with a modified blues. “Something Tamed Something Wild” moves fast, but the blues form signifies the album’s air of thoughtful melancholy. The lyrics speak of a box of old letters – a type of relic that digital generations will never know.
Looking back, taking stock, realizing what’s been left undone are themes that run through this set of 11 enchanting songs, beautifully produced by Dave Cobb.
The singer-songwriter’s honeyed alto has deepened into an instrument of greater emotional richness than in the days of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” not to mention the hit “I Feel Lucky” (both from 1992’s bestselling Come On Come On). It’s just right for these reflections on aging and the passage of time, as in “Middle Ages,” which evokes “the dreams distilled and the dreams discarded,” a duality anyone who’s reached middle age will recognize.
The worldview expressed in these songs has room for abiding love and friendship (“Hand On My Back”); for the touring life, the musician’s ever-handy metaphor for anyone’s life’s journey (“What Does It Mean to Travel”); for visceral reminiscence (the title track); and for the unspoken, as in “The Blue Distance,” whose narrator says, “I know you know and that’s all I need.”
“Oh Rosetta” is another kind of paean to the past, this one (I assume) honoring musical trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe: “May I call you sister when we talk this way? / You make me feel as if there’s nothing I can’t say.”
Carpenter has always been a master of setting imagistic, earthy, poetic lyrics to deceptively simple melodies that carry emotional meaning of their own. These smoky arrangements suit the new songs perfectly – earthy, with just enough shimmer to brighten the dusky mood. As she sings in “Hand On My Back”:
I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back
Love and devotion, personal integrity and assertiveness, acknowledgement of fragility – it’s all there in four simple lines. Quintessential Mary Chapin Carpenter.