Courtney Marie Andrews
It seems inherently counterintuitive to craft an album with a minimalist approach.
This is especially true for Courtney Marie Andrews, who, with 2018’s May Your Kindness Remain, expanded her brand of country-folk with a blues-rock heft and a more soulful presentation. It was a gamble, too; many acts within independent country have tried to expand their sound to the same degree, but have often ended up relying on comfortable, vintage tones that lack any real firepower.
For Old Flowers, though, Andrews wanted a more sedate approach, teaming up with producer Andrew Sarlo and utilizing two other musicians: Matthew Davidson on bass, guitar and keys, and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia on drums and percussion. Of course, this isn’t that far removed of a setup from Andrews’ previous albums, which operated on a low-key level, for sure, but were always elevated by the subtler touches – and that’s before mentioning how much of a natural force Andrews is behind the microphone anyway.
All of this is to say that, what Old Flowers may lack in its presentation – on the surface, at least – it more than makes up for it in … just about every area: from Andrews herself, who’s always carried a powerful emotional range, production that impresses in the little details, and writing that reveals itself to be among her best to date, centering this album as a devastating breakup record that’s among the best of the year so far.
And that’s mostly a weight carried by Andrew herself, a vocalist who’s always been capable of expressive earnestness and rugged, lived-in sincerity. And on an album testing both of those abilities – especially with the intimate presentation – it’s a layer of added complexity that shows her ultimately fine-tuning her strengths.
Which, of course, ties into the writing, which speaks mostly to the healing process that comes in the aftermath of a breakup, but does so in a way that speaks to its many intricate levels: the immediate shock following it, guilt and regret over what might’ve been, the “moving on” that doesn’t quite get going, finding the strength and self-awareness to actually go through with it, and learning how to let go without holding on to any bitterness. The history is always merely implied here, though it’s worth mentioning that Andrews crafted this album following the end of a nine-year relationship.
Of course, the easy criticism for this album is that it’s low-key. Aside from “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” which tries to pepper in some humor following an awkward encounter in public between her and her ex, given that Andrews ultimately wants to look upon her past with fondness, the album is as sparse as advertised. Granted, too, there are moments like “Break The Spell” and “If I Told” that do feel like they drag on way too long. Again, though, the real reward is in the little details, and when the melodic compositions – courtesy of some absolutely gorgeous piano flourishes, I might add – are this robust, I find it hard to complain.
On that note, there’s many little moments to love: the waltz cadence of “Burlap String” peppered with pedal steel accents and hints of reverb in the low end to highlight the haziness of the immediate shock and regret following that aforementioned end; and the same atmospheric, earthier tones that add a grace to “How You Get Hurt,” which also ties in to the understated quiver to her performance on “Together or Alone,” where her ex’s memory won’t leave her and she’s fine with that for now, if only because there’s some solace to be found from indulging in the pain and facing those memories head-on, painful as it may be at points. That’s not to say it’s an easy journey: “Carnival Dream” finds her at her lowest point on this record and is one of the most devastatingly beautiful, gutting songs of the year, and I love how it follows “Together or Alone” in trying to move on, yet also acknowledging it’s easier said than done. For as much as she tries to love someone else on “Guilty” and “If I Told,” they’re also moments early on that cause her to question her own implications in her previous relationship’s end, especially when, on the latter track, it’s hard to build trust with someone and feel comfortable getting to know them. It’s time that causes the relationship to grow and evolve, and it’s time that makes it difficult to start the process over again. And Andrews mostly looks on at the entire process with a mature sense of empathy, fully understating that her ex-significant other is likely dealing with the same emotional turbulence as well.
What’s to love most about Old Flowers, though, is the natural thematic progression – how even though Andrews is able to convey the moody complexity that tracks like “Burlap String” and “Carnival Dream” call for – and make no mistake, those are subtle tracks testing her power in another way altogether – she’s able to overcome her insecurities and anxieties by working through them. Coming off “Carnival Dream,” it’s refreshing to hear her pick her spirits back up on the title track, and even though both parties would likely secretly love for a second chance on “How You Get Hurt,” the distance between them now is greater than the love they once shared, even if that will never truly die out. It shouldn’t, really.
For as excellent as this album is, there are a few moments where the mixing seems a bit off. It’s as if there’s an odd imbalance between Andrews’ voice, which sits a bit too close to the front on tracks like “If I Told” and “Ships In The Night,” and whatever sparse instrumentals are there, which always sit in the low end but feel a bit too muted – again, on “If I Told” – or, conversely, sit way too close to the front on “Ships In The Night.” Granted, it’s an album where one certainly wants that space to breathe, but it’s a bit too noticeable at points.
Still, for an album that should altogether scan as a step backwards for Andrews, it’s one that, instead, improves on all fronts: from a heavy, scarred thematic core to a presentation that highlights that vulnerability, it’s an emotionally draining listen that requires a rare patience, for sure; but also one that’s worth facing head-on. Sometimes getting hurt is the best remedy for whatever pain is ailing us.
Old Flowers may lack the pure firepower in its presentation that May Your Kindness Remain had, but with writing that hits upon a deeper emotional core, Old Flowers is among Courtney Marie Andrews’ most powerful albums to date.