More so than her artfully-turned phrases and her novel, evocative imagery, perhaps Gretchen Peters’ greatest gift as a songwriter is her mastery of perspective. Peters’ ability to shift her narrative voice to create fully realized, authentic characters whose emotions and experiences drive her songs has very few peers, and that particular skill serves her well on Blackbirds. A meditation on mortality, Blackbirds highlights a variety of experiences and points-of-view on matters of death and loss, and it’s that multifaceted perspective that gives the album such remarkable depth.
The title track ever-so-slowly reveals itself to be a sly murder ballad, while the spirited folk ballad “Black Ribbons” finds Peters adopting the POV of a grieving Gulf Coast fisherman tasked with burying his wife after enduring Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill. Lead single “When All You Got is a Hammer,” which boasts backing vocals by Jason Isbell, is a structural marvel, using lyrics that are just slightly askew of the song’s meter to reflect the uneasiness of a returning veteran whose PTSD ultimately destroys his family. Elsewhere on the album, relationships slowly decay (“Pretty Things”), friends go missing (“The House on Auburn Street”), and lovers are lost to vice and addiction (“When You Comin’ Home”).
It’s heady, difficult material, and Peters’ empathy for her subjects keeps any one narrative from taking precedence over any other, and there’s real wisdom in that approach. The album emerges as a powerful tone poem, which also makes it perhaps a bit easier to overlook the occasional clunky line (“The cure for the pain is the pain” is particularly egregious as the chorus to “The Cure For the Pain”) and production that could stand for greater variety of tempo and a sonic palette with the same depth as Peters’ lyrics.
An album that trades in death doesn’t have to sound funereal, in other words, and Blackbirds occasionally skews a bit too far in that direction. Peters’ songs lend themselves to the frayed edges on “Black Ribbons” and “When All You Got is a Hammer,” and they’re so well-written that they could withstand heftier production. Ultimately, there’s something of a disconnection between how clean and safe Blackbirds sounds and how deeply Peters’ songs cut into the viscera.
Recommended Tracks: “When All You Got is a Hammer,” “Black Ribbons,” “When You Comin’ Home”