Single Review: Gretchen Peters, “The Cruel Mother”

“The Cruel Mother”

Gretchen Peters

Traditional

A new Gretchen Peters single? In October? At a time when we need it most? In spooky season?!? Yes, please.

OK, so this isn’t technically new – it’s a 17th century murder ballad that Peters originally included as a bonus track on 2015’s Blackbirds, and then on 2016’s The Essential Gretchen Peters … which isn’t available on most streaming platforms now, it seems. At any rate, it’s a welcome treat.

The song itself goes by multiple titles and versions, with the most discernible differences coming through in the framing of the content. The general story tells of an unwed mother who gives birth to two children, whom she kills – presumably out of shame – only to be forever haunted by their ghosts and damned for eternity.

Some versions include a small detail of her affair with her father’s clerk. Peters’ version does not; it’s more direct in drawing out the slow agony of the entire story and mental anguish on the mother. And while there’s little more to back the song than Peters and an ominous piano to hammer down on the simultaneous innocence and despair of the situation, really, it’s all that’s needed.

Indeed, what I’ve always loved about Peters’ tone is her knack for interpretation, and while it’s easier to explain why on her original cuts, here, her tone is weathered. Her own sad songs lack judgment and are all the better for it. She’s more concerned with drawing attention to the bigger picture, and how, even on an old-fashioned song with clearly dated language, she’s able to draw empathy for the mother – a woman forced to do what she has to, with only a tinge of natural regret. That society normalizes shaming women for having children out of wedlock makes the detail of her general indifference to it all that much more cutting, and, as far as society obsessing over the decisions women make with their own bodies goes, frighteningly relevant today.

In other words, there’s always beauty to be found in a sad song, even at a time where some would argue we don’t need them. Again, it may not be a new single, but there’s more ways to hear it now, and that’s a net positive. And, given that Peters already delivered one of the better cover projects with The Night You Wrote That Song earlier this year, it’s certainly telling that it fits right at home in her discography.

Grade: A-

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