Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter, <i>Ashes and Roses</i>

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Ashes and Roses

Mary Chapin Carpenter could be considered an example of the rare artist who releases her best and most significant work right in the midst of her commercial heyday, or whose music might have even benefited from considering the ever-present concerns of what could be grasped by mainstream audiences.  In the years since Carpenter’s hot streak ended – She hasn’t had a Top 40 hit since 1999's “Almost Home” – she seems to have lost sight of the need to bring her thoughts down to an accessible, digestible level.

If you’ve at all been following Mary Chapin Carpenter’s output over the past decade, it should come as little surprise that her new album Ashes and Roses often wants for variance in melody and tempo.  Likewise, Carpenter and producer Matt Rollings back each track with only slight variations on the same soft acoustic coffeehouse folk arrangement.  Still, the greater issue is that the album offers little reward for the listeners who do take a closer listen, and dig deeper into the lyrical sentiments presented.

There’s hardly a memorable hook to be found on this album, be it lyrical or melodic, which means there’s little to help the material make any lasting impression on the memory.  Opener “Transcendental Reunion” has a melodic structure that essentially consists of the same progression of notes repeated endlessly throughout, offering a weak listener payoff.  Even when Carpenter hones in on a potentially interesting idea for a song, the treatment feels vague and underdeveloped.  One such example is “What to Keep and What to Throw Away,” which ineffectively attempts to chronicle the end of a relationship through a one-dimensional series of instructions delivered without any palpable emotional intensity.  “Don’t Need Much Too Be Happy” trades in a somewhat similar variation on Carpenter’s 1993 Lucinda Williams-penned hit, the superior “Passionate Kisses,” but lacks the same layers of character development in its list of polite requests for things the narrator needs.  The James Taylor duet “Soul Companion fails to reach any greater crescendo than a repetition of the title phrase along with a hollow refrain of “I will meet you there.” (Where?)  The fact that Carpenter’s voice scarcely rises above a whisper throughout the set doesn’t do anything to offset the weightlessness of the material, instead adding to the overall dreariness of the record as a whole.

The set’s best-written song is “Learning the World,” which is a wistful meditation on the grieving process – possibly inspired in part by Carpenter’s experience in dealing with the death of her father.  It opens with an interesting personification of grief as if “rides quietly on the passenger side, unwanted company on a long, long drive,” though it still includes the odd throwaway line “I wish I were the wind, so that I could blow away.”  Carpenter also connects more solidly with “I Tried Going West,” which benefits from a stronger semblance of narrative and attention to detail.  Even the songs that are more satisfying lyrically still suffer greatly from lack of heed to the importance of melody, such that listening to all fourteen of the album’s tracks still feels more like a chore than anything else.  By the time you’re only a few tracks in, you’ll find it awfully hard to resist flinging around the word boring.

Of course, many similar criticisms could be, and were, leveled against Carpenter’s previous set, 2010’s The Age of Miracles.  But even then, Miracles included several scattered melodic mood-breakers such as the singles “I Put My Ring Back On” and “The Way I Feel,” which is something that Ashes and Roses cannot claim. 

At this point, it’s easy to wonder if Carpenter will ever make a truly great album again.  It’s extremely disheartening to see such direction being taken by an artist who made such fine music back in her day, with her career-best effort Stones In the Road ranking among the greatest country albums ever recorded.  Ashes and Roses simply lacks the wit, insight, vigor, and substantial connection to everyday life that were the hallmarks of Carpenter’s best work, making it feel less like any form of forward artistic progression, and more like the spinning of wheels.

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13 Comments

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13 Responses to Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter, <i>Ashes and Roses</i>

  1. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    Title and cover looks like a V.C. Andrews novel.

    It’s hard to believe that the woman who made Stones in the Road, which I reflexively named my favorite album ever for a good fifteen years, is someone who I don’t even buy new albums from anymore.

    Last one I enjoyed was T*S*L*. Last one I bought was 2007’s The Calling. Didn’t even know she had a new album out, and your review doesn’t make me want to check it out at all.

    You nailed it. She hit her creative and commercial peak at the same time. Very rare.

  2. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    In all good honesty, even though she’s had numerous country hits, I don’t think M.C.C. really thought of herself as a straight country act to begin with, so it’s not too likely that this album would so easily fit into that format. Still, artists like her are an increasingly rare kind on the radio these days (IMHO).

  3. bobNo Gravatar

    Ben nailed it when he wrote “There’s hardly a memorable hook to be found on this album, be it lyrical or melodic, which means there’s little to help the material make any lasting impression on the memory.” “Ashes and Roses” will be the first MCC studio album that I’m not buying.

    When I look back at the titles of the songs on the albums since 2000, there are only a few that I can recall what they sounded like. For example, from “The Calling” I recall “Houston” and “On With the Song” and from “The Age of Miracles”, the two songs Ben mentioned. There’s very little else that’s, well, musical. I guess it’s more like poetry than music.

  4. which I reflexively named my favorite album ever for a good fifteen years

    Is there another album that has since displaced Stones In the Road as your favorite? Just curious. If so, I’m wondering if it’s an album that I have heard or own.

    In all good honesty, even though she’s had numerous country hits, I don’t think M.C.C. really thought of herself as a straight country act to begin with, so it’s not too likely that this album would so easily fit into that format.

    That is correct. Thus, I wasn’t exactly taking it as a conventional country album. But since she is generally considered a country act, and had her greatest success in the country format, I still feel her work fits within the general spectrum of music we aim to cover at Country Universe. (Several of her more recent singles have been reviewed here as well)

  5. “Ashes and Roses” will be the first MCC studio album that I’m not buying.”

    Me too. I listened on Spotify and don’t care to hear any of the songs again, for many of the reasons Mr. Foster stated above. These songs are boring, plodding, and just unremarkable.

    I would disagree however, about Carpenter hitting her creative peak at the same time as her commercial peak. I always ranked 2007’s The Calling right up with her 1990-94 releases. I think she really hit her artistic stride with that one, pairing her folk sensibilities with her penchant for sweeping melodies and smart lyrics better than ever before. Still, you’re dead on that it’s been all downhill in the two releases since then.

  6. I’m glad folks are bringing up The Calling, because it’s one of her finest albums. If you’re looking for hooks, you really should check out the above-mentioned “The Way I Feel” from Mary’s last album, which was serviced to Country radio and went nowhere. Part of what I love about Ashes and Roses is that it is NOT chasing the traditional Country radio format that gave up on her more weighty subject matter.

    As a long-time fan of MCC, I feel like my appreciation of her has evolved along with her sonic evolution. For example, “Transcendental Reunion” to me is a creative way of describing the end of this life leading on to another stage, and the melodic repetition that one might feel is a detriment is actually true to the title. Transcendental meditation is based around a repeated mantra, and in this instance it’s a repeated melody. As for “Soul Companion,” I love that it sounds like a song that easily could have fit on to Never Die Young. The comment of “where?” sums up the theme of that song: where doesn’t matter as long as your companion is along for the ride.

    While I agree that melodically there isn’t a lot of diversity, this material comes out of the death of her father, a life-threatening illness and the end of a marriage. For me, Ashes is meant to be listened to in a quiet place where you can listen to the lyrics without the hustle and bustle of life to distract. The production rightfully is on the lyrics, with just enough spark to shade each tune without pulling the focus away from the subject matter. The more I listen to Ashes, the more I love it.

  7. John,

    I think it’s great when someone acts as a champion for music that is being discussed negatively. Your above comments are very interesting and clearly well-thought-out, and perhaps I may eventually see what you see in the material. Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  8. Thanks. I actually didn’t take it negatively. I think she has consciously headed in a direction that many of her older fans might not embrace. Good on her for being at a spot in her life that she doesn’t have to chase a hit (which I’m sure she could produce if she wanted to).

  9. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    Ben wrote:

    Is there another album that has since displaced Stones In the Road as your favorite? Just curious. If so, I’m wondering if it’s an album that I have heard or own.

    Probably Home, though MDNA seems determined to knock it out of the top spot.

    Still love Stones, but I’ve moved away from introspective, folksy music as a whole, so it’s not in the rotation much.

  10. Michael A.No Gravatar

    You liked MDNA that much, Kevin? I thought it was ok, but would rank it somewhere in the middle of the pack of Madonna albums.

  11. Kevin John CoyneNo Gravatar

    Apparently I do. I’ve been listening to it since the end of March and haven’t gotten tired of it yet.
    There are eight songs from it that are already in my twenty most played songs on my iPod.

    If I had to write a serious list of her best albums, I don’t know that I’d put it at #1. But it’s the one I like listening to the most.

  12. I eventually settled on Home as my personal favorite album, mostly because it’s just about the only album I can think of that’s a lofty artistic triumph from a critical standpoint, but also one that I’ve been personally listening to and enjoying just as a fan for years, since long before I became as immersed in music as I am today. I own MDNA also, and I do enjoy it, though it’s a little ways outside my musical comfort zone.

  13. Michael A.No Gravatar

    Ok! I found most of the songs to be adequate, a few great (“Girl Gone Wild”) and a few downright atrocious (“B-Day Song”). As a whole, for me, the album isn’t in the same league as Confessions or Like a Prayer, but it doesn’t rank as poorly as Erotica, Hard Candy or American Life. I’m excited to see her on tour for the first time this fall; a true bucket list item for me.

    My favorite country album is probably the Chicks’ Taking the Long Way or Carpenter’s Come On Come On. The hooks on them were more accessible to me than the melodies from Home or Stones in the Road.