Mary Chapin Carpenter, Stones in the Road

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August 31, 2008

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Stones in the Road

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.

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  1. MarcNo Gravatar says:

    I prefer other albums of hers. Definitely not a 5 star, not when Loveless only got 4.5. But that’s the essence of Country Music.. the good stuff always speaks to -someone-.

    (And I don’t mean in a “God” kind of way)

  2. Different reviewers. I gave Fallen Angels five stars when I included it in my best contemporary album list (it was in the top five.) But there are other Loveless albums that Blake would rate higher than me.

  3. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    That’s what I was about to say. We, as reviewers, are individuals. So, our ratings of singles and albums are bound to differ.

  4. Blake BoldtNo Gravatar says:

    Agreed. I have amended, due to my better understanding of the rating system, When Fallen Angels Fly to five stars, but The Trouble with the Truth will remain 4.5.

    I would give this album 4 stars. Although I don’t believe it to be an essential cornerstone of the genre, I feel that it’s musical art of the highest power for all the points that Kevin has mentioned. Chapin deserves quite a lot of credit for her crisp, wickedly smart songwriting, and I’m glad she was able to enjoy the mainstream success that came her way in the early ’90s.

  5. J.R. JourneyNo Gravatar says:

    This is definitely a 5 star album from start to finish. I love ‘Keeper For Every Flame’ a whole helluva lot, and really every song on this one …

    Thanks for giving me some extra reading on this and another of my favorite albums, ‘For My Broken Heart’ from Reba.

  6. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    Another four star effort – I liked this album more when it first came out than I do now. I am not sure if it’s her voice that gets on my nerves or what, but I find that I like MCC best in very small doses

  7. ChadNo Gravatar says:

    I also love the way the opening notes in “Why Walk When you Can Fly” come back at the end of the CD.

    Its honestly one of the first CDs that I came to love for the lyrics that aren’t “obvious,” which is why I think the CD means different things to you when you listen to different parts of your life.

    Another favorite CD by one of my favorite artists….thanks for reviewing.

  8. Leeann WardNo Gravatar says:

    Paul, it’s her voice that actually draws me in. I love her insights and wit too.

  9. Chad,

    You’ve got good taste! What are some of your other favorite albums?

  10. JonathanNo Gravatar says:

    I’m still partial to Come On, Come On, but this is certainly her other essential album, as this excellent review makes clear.

    This is the album that set the template for the remainder of Carpenter’s career– she’s been recording variations of it ever since. And, while she’s hit some occasional high points (such as the under-rated time*sex*love*) amid some more middling efforts, I don’t think she’s ever come close to replicating the start-to-finish quality of Stones in the Road. “House of Cards” is one of my favorite singles of hers, but this is one of the rare country albums that plays well as a complete collection.

  11. charlieNo Gravatar says:

    My personal opinion is that if someone whose opinion I trust in general feels strongly enough about something subjective, like music, I owe it at least a few listens. I came to this album through osmosis from Kevin, but it has now become a talking point of mine for country music. In discovering Chapin as an artist, I am not sure how someone could do better capturing themselves on vinly/cd/digital medium. i will certainly defer to matters of personal taste, but on a musical level (personal connections aside) this album is a master class.

  12. PatrickNo Gravatar says:

    I listened to it the other day. it was a pretty good album, but it may grow on me

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