July 4, 2012
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.