In what must be one of the most off-putting recommendations ever, Barbara Kingsolver of the Oprah-approved The Poisonwood Bible says that “Carrie Newcomer is much more than a musician”. That is, “to my mind—a writer’s mind.”
What sententious, pretentious rubbish.
To the rest of us without the bookish clutter in a writer’s mind, Newcomer works comfortably and competently within the tradition of singer-songwriters. She paints an array of identifiable characters, but artists from Bob Dylan to Lucinda Williams to Elvis Costello all make a regular practice of singing stories with narrative particulars. And if there are electric guitars and even jazzed up horns (on “Bowling Baby”, one of the three previously unreleaseds; worth noting is that the previously unreleaseds are actually good), she’s very much a folk singer in spirit.
As far as it’s a good thing, being a contemporary folkie plays off Newcomer’s inherent kindness and tenderness. In “Betty’s Diner”, the late night waitress has “heard it all, but she don’t mind”. Instead, she smiles and pours coffees and, most of all, sympathizes without judging. “Despair and hope sit face to face / When you come in from the cold” at Betty’s Diner and the waitress around whom the song swirls is a survivor who does her understated best to nudge everyone else through.
If a literary connection must be made, the mood of “Betty’s Diner”, and the album in general, is like the diner in Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show: a refuge from the world, where tired souls can come in for temporary comfort and help each other make it through one more long night.
But as far as Newcomer’s folkiness can be limiting, compare “Betty’s Diner” with “Night Patrol”, Robert Cray’s own portrait of the graveyard beat. Or with Rickie Lee Jones’s “Living It Up”. With Cray, the narrator is newly jobless and has picked up his share of “bad habits”, observing the homeless and prostitutes and addicts whose circles he knows he is slipping down into. In Jones’s song, an affair between lost souls at a bar will be, maybe, a chance to run away and someday really live it up. While Newcomer captures individuals in a state of eternal flux—indeed, “Betty’s Diner” is a celebration of the eternal cycle of hope and defeat, rest and renewal—Cray and Jones paint lives in specific flux. If “Betty’s Diner” is the gathering of participants each with their own stories and is rich with the hint of untold stories, Cray and Jones tell at least two of those stories in their stories. Though “Betty’s Diner” is evocative, it pales to “Life goes on” vagueness when seen against Cray and Jones’s focused narratives about the different hows in which life can go on.
Though Newcomer does preach moral, even theological, specifics on songs like “Hold On” and “The Gathering of Spirits”, she’s never strident. She might be annoyingly sure of the mercy that she doles out, but she’s never physically or metaphorically shrill. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with grappling with, and taking sides on, the Big Issues of life and death and God, but Newcomer’s a folkie in that she deals openly with issues that can be read between the lines of more subtle artists. Subtlety isn’t necessarily a virtue, but, considering that Big Issues are more or less logically undecidable, the approach is everything artistically and a good, poetic metaphor for God can be a lot more convincing, not to mention enjoyable for a non-believer, than a flatly straightforward declaration of faith.
Newcomer’s not dour and she even gets off a joke here and there, but it’s her self-conscious realization of the artist’s supposed duty to reflect the widest, most vibrant spectrum of life they can present that, combined with her non-judgmental tolerance for the human race, prevents her from choosing a secular side as sharply defined as her religious stance (Go, God!). Competent as she consistently is and good as she sometimes is, Newcomer might be better after trading a general benevolence towards the world for a focused reaction towards one specific niche of it.