Down to Believing
Since making her debut with 1997’s Alabama Song, Allison Moorer has been one of country music’s most consistent albums artists. The singer-songwriter has three unqualified masterpieces to her credit— the flawless stone-country heartbreak cycle of The Hardest Part, the politically charged The Duel, and the somber, heady Southern Gothic of Crows. Despite having those triumphs— and other excellent albums like Alabama Song and Miss Fortune— to her credit, Moorer’s latest effort, Down to Believing, is perhaps the finest album of her career because it finds Moorer challenging both her singing and her songwriting voices to plumb truly difficult emotional depths.
Though the songs are not strictly autobiographical, Moorer’s writing for this album was inspired by the dissolution of her marriage to Steve Earle and by her son’s diagnosis of Autism. These major milestones inform Moorer’s point of view over the course of the thirteen extraordinary songs on Down to Believing, and what emerges is an album that plays out the full cycle of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. It’s not a linear process, and it’s complicated and often messy, but it ultimately leads to feelings of catharsis and to powerful new insights. And it’s Moorer’s willingness to transform the process of grief into a compelling song cycle that makes her an artist of the highest caliber.
Feelings of denial drive songs like the lilting title track, on which Moorer attempts to make sense of a changed relationship (“I guess it comes down to believing/And whether we do or we don’t/I guess it comes down to staying or leaving/And whether we will or we won’t), and particularly on “I’m Doing Fine,” with a strained sense of optimism that couldn’t be more transparent as self-deception. The idea the various narrators Moorer has written are struggling to accept their present realities also comes into play on “Wish I” and “Back of My Mind.”
The album’s most immediately accessible and impressive tracks are those on which Moorer’s characters fully embrace their anger. Moorer’s husky contralto is one of country’s most distinctive and powerful instruments, and she’s never given a performance as guttural as what she delivers on the album’s second single, “Tear Me Apart.” She wails and growls through the song’s refrain (“What am I supposed to say/When I want to scream every time you look my way?”) and pushes hard into her upper register. “Thunderstorm / Hurricane” is no less impressive, as Moorer lapses into a falsetto range as the song’s rage builds to a stirring climax.
But the album’s centerpiece is the song most explicitly tied to her son’s Autism diagnosis: Parents of children with ASD grieve for their child in their own ways, and Moorer castigates herself for what she perceives as her own culpability on “Mama Let the Wolf In.” Over a delta blues riff— the intro suggests Bobbie Gentry at her sultriest, which is obviously a fine thing— Moorer directly addresses and apologizes to her child. It’s a complex mix of outright anger (“He could’ve gone next door/To pillage and plunder/But he don’t ask permission/Big bad motherfucker”) and regret (“You’re the one he’s got/And I’d do anything to take your place”) that impresses for its palpable empathy as much as for its fully-drawn metaphor.
Moorer’s anger is tempered elsewhere on the album. She begins to look for compromise and coping mechanisms on songs like “If I Were Stronger” and “Back Of My Mind,” on which she acknowledges the need to move on. “I Lost My Crystal Ball,” with its prominent mandolin riff and jangling electric guitars, favorably recalls R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction era, while Moorer sings about how she “found a wrecking ball” that she used to “[tear] the whole thing down.” And on her terrific cover of CCR’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” she’s looking for signs of change and remains cautiously optimistic of what the future might bring, even if it seems like the world is actively working against her. The hurt is still urgent, but she’s already considering how to move forward.
She doesn’t spend much time wallowing in depression on these songs. “Blood,” which she wrote for her sister, Shelby Lynne, finds strength in familial bonds (“You don’t have to explain/I got your blood running through my veins”) in times of hardship. “If I Were Stronger” is a melancholy, piano-driven ballad on which Moorer lays bare her sadness: “Now my soul is weary, threadbare, and broken/And arms that were open feel so weak.”
But the album derives its greatest power on the songs that reach some level of acceptance. Moorer captures this tone best on the songs that bookend Down to Believing: She sounds empowered on lead single “Like It Used to Be,” on which she notes, “So I’m just gonna be stumbling down this road/Where it goes, I ain’t supposed to know.” She respects time’s power as an agent of change, and she embraces her own agency on “Gonna Get it Wrong,” which closes the album on a hopeful note: “I know that I’m gonna get it wrong/But it’s all right.”
Reuniting with producer Kenny Greenberg for the first time since The Hardest Part, Moorer has released her most straightforwardly country-sounding album in more than a decade. She’s never earned the mainstream success that her talent deserved, but Down to Believing isn’t terribly far removed from the rock-influenced style of Miranda Lambert or Eric Church. Moorer and Greenberg give a harder edge to cuts like “Tear Me Apart” and “Thunderstorm / Hurricane,” while “If I Were Stronger” and “Back of My Mind” are more polished and subdued. The album is elevated by Greenberg’s smart production choices, which are consistently well-matched to the content of Moorer’s searing material.
Moorer simply doesn’t hold anything back in her songwriting or in her performances. She includes authentic, vulnerable first-person details into narratives that delve into some of the most difficult aspects of truly adult experiences, and she performs those songs with unwavering humanity and her note-perfect, molasses-thick drawl. She has made a career of crafting albums that consistently invite real analysis, and Down to Believing isn’t just her most rewarding work to date, it’s the most dense country album since Lambert’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and perhaps the best album in what has been a tremendous year for country music.
Recommended Tracks: “Like It Used to Be,” “Tear Me Apart,” “Mama Let the Wolf In,” “Gonna Get It Wrong.”