It’s rare enough to find a musician with a naturally beautiful voice and a gift for lovely, nuanced lyricism, but it’s even rarer to be able to enjoy that musician without cluttered production, overdone instrumentation, backing vocals, or other décor that obscures the real beauty of an album. Meg Hutchinson’s The Living Side is that even rarer creature, presenting a singer-songwriter who lets both those features shine throughout the album. Of course, much credit goes to producer Crit Harmon, but it’s Hutchinson who deserves the lion’s share for her gentle, lovely delivery of introspective lyrics. On “Being Happy”, the album’s second track, Hutchinson ponders the perceived gap between life and art: “They say perfect the life or perfect the art … / There’s room for both of you in my heart”. Such lyrics indicate the way Hutchinson hasn’t sacrificed any of her gifts to show off the others.
Hutchinson’s voice is what is most immediately striking about The Living Side. Its genuine, natural sound and timbre is what’s first apparent on the opener, “Hard to Change”. However, it isn’t until the amazing harmonies that introduce “Being Happy” that listeners realize they’re dealing with a raw talent, one who could shine as well at a campfire as on a stage. Hutchinson’s voice is slightly moodier on “Hopeful Things”, which begins with the bold humor of “when I drink whiskey, sometimes I do things I don’t regret”. From there, the moodiness remains, even as the imagery turns to apple fields and jet planes, the entrancing lead vocals backed by faint intonations by Hutchinson herself. “Even in my sleep I sing and forever I begin”, goes one line in this song. Such fervid practice shows throughout the album.
Hutchinson’s voice is only one aspect of this recording’s gentle brilliance. Were the instrumental accompaniment more audacious than tactful guitars and Wurlitzers, her gorgeous timbre might get lost. The same goes if her lyrics were throwaways, but they’re clearly not. Hutchinson writes from a perspective of a woman in the world: neither political nor personal, but being forced to navigate both, navigate everything that comprises modern life. Only careful listeners will spot the overtly political content in some songs, such as the reference to the “year of the billion-dollar bailout” in “Hard to Change.”
To hear political content so nuanced is a refreshing change from the usual ham-fisted manner of many contemporary folk singers. “I had just returned from my own private war / My mind still wrapped in bandages, my nights still filled with fear”, Hutchinson sings in “Every Day”. Lines like these emphasize what it is to be human in a time of war, to deal with the issues of love and art and identity that populate the rest of the album. “At First It Was Fun” begins with Icarus-like imagery (“At first it was fun / I glued my feathers on”), navigates through glory (“I felt the bright lights shining just for me”) and failure (“until the day it all fell away”), until she finally accepts her ordinary mortality: “But I promise to stay, yeah I promise to stay on the living side”. As listeners, we can all celebrate that.