I believe the essence of God is reflected in the very best art. By that standard, Stones in the Road has been my gospel, the defining record that I have turned to at every stage of my life and learned something new from it, a truth that had already been revealed to me but I wasn’t ready to understand at an earlier time.
What Carpenter achieves here, through a journey of thirteen songs, is both an honest look at the weaknesses present in the human experience, and a hopeful optimism that they can be transcended. I’m amazed, listening to this album again, just how much of my own worldview has been shaped and later validated by the words of wisdom Carpenter communicated. I truly believe, for example, that “in this world you’ve a soul for a compass and a heart for a pair of wings,” as she implores in the gospel-flavored opening track, “Why Walk When You Can Fly.” She captured an essential truth of a small community in “House of Cards” that verbalized my biggest issue with the suburban area I grew up in: “I grew up in a town like this, you knew the names of every street. On the surface it looked so safe, but it was perilous underneath.”
Her unflinching look at how we fail ourselves and the ones we love cut deep. On “A Keeper For Every Flame,” she tells of a man who “just misses what he can’t forget. It’ s just an empty space where something used to be, now he guards the gate but he’s lost the key, so no one enters but no one leaves.” “The Last Word” never directly refers to the title, obliquely referring to it as “it,” but captures in song the empty victory of winning the battle of words but losing love in the process: “Some words will cut you down like you’re only in the way. Why should I stand this ground?” leads to “Sometimes we’re blinded by the very thing we need to see. I finally realized that you need it more than you need me.”
In “The End of My Pirate Days,” she notes that “this world is kinder to the kind who won’t look back. They are the chosen few among us now, unbowed somehow.” In the gut-wrenching “Outside Looking In,” she hears “the sound a heart a must make when a memory’s caving in.” When she wonders how to find “Where Time Stood Still”, she wistfully sings, “I remember like a lover can, but I forget it like a leaver will.”
It would be an overwhelmingly depressing album if it weren’t so seasoned with true hope, the belief that the heartaches of past can lead to a happy future if the right lessons are learned in the present. “Jubilee” implores that “I can tell by the way that you’re talking, that the past isn’t letting you go. Well, there’s only so long you can take it all on, then the wrong’s gotta be on its own. And when you’re ready to leave it behind you, you’ll look back and all you will see, is the wreckage and rust that you left in the dust, on your way to the jubilee.”
And nothing can match the sheer scale of “This Is Love,” the epic album closer that trades in regret for hope as the song progresses, as true a declaration of real devotion as I’ve ever heard: “When the waves are lapping in and you’re not sure you can swim, well, here’s the lifeline.” The narrator comes to terms with her own emotional baggage and insists that her new love can do the same: “If you ever need some proof that time can heal your wounds, just step inside my heart and walk around these rooms where the shadows used to be, you can feel as well as see how peace can conquer.”
Most amazingly is that the love affair in the song doesn’t survive as a relationship, but is still cherished after it has gone, and it works as a reminder that most connections we have with others are transient, but they can still be valued and remembered fondly long after the direct contact has ended. There’s such a beauty to her assertion that “If you ever wish for things that are only in the past, just remember that the wrong things aren’t supposed to last. It’s over and done and the rest is gonna come when you let it,” that it can trivialize all those cliched hold-on-to-love-at-all-cost songs that have always dominated popular music.
Stones in the Road is a challenging and inspiring record, and more than just the greatest work in Mary Chapin Carpenter’s distinguished career. It’s one of the best country albums ever made.