Part One features the latest albums from Loretta Lynn, Kathy Mattea, Ashley Monroe, Kim Richey, and Carrie Underwood. Check out Part One here.
Wouldn’t it Be Great
The most stunning surprise of 2018. Loretta Lynn has been more active as a recording artist since the death of her husband, but the only release that received much attention was her collaboration with Jack White on Van Lear Rose. Some of what made that project a success is present on Wouldn’t it Be Great, but whereas that album filtered Lynn’s artistry through the prism of an alternative rocker, this one is as Lynn at her purest. She wrote all but one of the tracks, and classic compositions sit alongside new ones without a dip in quality during the entire run time. She sounds rejuvenated, with the strongest vocals she’s delivered since her radio heyday.
Her humor is as sharp as ever on “Ruby’s Stool,” where she empties an ashtray into the beer can of the woman dancing with her man. Mountain story songs like “Lulie Vars” sit alongside Lynn classics like “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” embedding her own peerless legacy within the history of Appalachia. Anyone looking to make a case for Lynn as a songwriter for the ages need only submit Wouldn’t it Be Great as evidence.
Kathy Mattea emerges with her first new album in six years, during which time she worked countless hours to retrain her voice. Given that her two previous releases, Coal and Calling Me Home, focused nearly exclusively on traditional material, Pretty Bird is her first album since 2005’s Right Out of Nowhere to primarily feature contemporary songs. There are still some covers here, including a plaintive take on “Ode to Billie Joe,” but the most compelling moments on the consistently excellent Pretty Bird apply Mattea’s progressive Catholicism as she engages the world around her. Mary Gauthier’s “Mercy Now” is newly relevant in 2018, with its relentless indictment of church and country grounded in a passionate plea to God for His titular mercy. Its bookend, “Holy Now,” finds that mercy in the miracles of everyday life, turning the simplest beauties of Earth into sacraments.
Mattea’s best work has often explored the briefness of time and the love and loss associated with mortality, and that’s true again on Pretty Bird. “Little Glass of Wine” reminds how the fruit of the vine distracts us from our inevitable death, and “October Song” finds a woman seeing the seasons change while her yearning for her lost love remains the same. Mattea’s troubadour spirit and aching humanity have been sorely missed, and Pretty Bird is a triumphant return.
The loss of a parent and the arrival of a child are the two major life changes that inform Ashley Monroe’s Sparrow, which showcases her talent as both a singer and a songwriter. Dave Cobb’s production leans heavily into the melancholy, with effective use of strings throughout that evoke the Bobbie Gentry records of days gone by. When that sound is paired with the strongest songs on Sparrow, the result is mesmerizing. The album opens with its strongest cut, “Orphan,” which is haunting in its portrayal of an adult child’s grief: “How does an orphan find its way home? Reach out with no hand to hold. How do I make it alone?”
That same sadness infuses even the celebration of parenthood from the other angle, as it is only the joy of her daughter that makes life bearable on “She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me.)” Other highlights include a pair of regretful tunes (“Hands On You,” “Paying Attention”) for not loving a man while she still had the chance, and “Keys to the Kingdom,” which imagines a heaven full of faces that await her eventual arrival.
More than twenty years after she first attempted mainstream country success, Kim Richey returns to the jangly, twangy sound that dominated Kim Richey and Bitter Sweet, her first two albums that remain her best efforts. Richey mines familiar lyrical territory, using metaphors of nature and musing on missed opportunities and memories that she can’t let go of, even as she tries. The album’s best moments pack a real punch. “Chasing Wild Horses,” co-written with Mike Henderson, rues on the “Things I’ve done that I ain’t proud of, I can’t even stand the sound of, I still hear them knocking on my door.”
On “Pin a Rose,” she plays the role of the wiser friend who got her heart broken again, reminding her that “You saw a light, I saw a freight train coming. I tried to tell you he was no damn good. You heard bells, I heard the hammer falling. He ran you down like I said he would.” And on “Can’t Let You Go,” her talent for vivid imagery is in top form, as she connects the coldness around her to the emptiness in her heart: “The things that worked for me before, they just don’t do it anymore, and last train’s gone and the bars are closed. November wind cuts through my clothes.”
If its predecessor, Storyteller, found Carrie Underwood in something of a holding pattern, Cry Pretty is the bold step forward that characterized her fourth and best studio set, Blown Away. The chances she takes on Cry Pretty don’t pay off as consistently as they did on that seminal album, but when they do, the pay off is huge. It’s a dark album that often explores heady subject matter, and those moments provide the album’s greatest achievements.
“Spinning Bottles” is a stunner, a piano-based ballad that shows the heartbreak and desperation of an alcoholic man and the woman who won’t give up on him. “The Bullet” strips the politics of the gun control debate away to explore the individual impact of one death by gunfire, and ultimately makes a more powerful statement than any polemic could. “Backsliding” and “Drinking Alone” fully declare a woman’s indestructible core, refusing to sacrifice her independence, even while surrendering to the arms of another. The production doesn’t always allow them to shine through, but Underwood’s talents as a singer and a songwriter are as strong as ever.