Mary Gauthier chooses her words carefully. My favorite moment on the country singer’s 2005 breakthrough album Mercy Now comes about a minute into the title track, where she sings, without a trace of irony, “I love my father”. Even in country music, a lyric like that shouldn’t work. Listeners are too wary of anything sentimental. Gauthier did something right; the first time I heard that line it cut through my defenses and brought me to tears.
Gauthier’s best lyrics are like that one, intentionally toeing the line of sentimentality. It’s a tightrope she’s walked for five critically acclaimed albums, and she’s good at it. There are a lot of reasons for this: her dark sense of humor, her rough-edged, no-nonsense voice. One major element is her ability to choose simple words that reveal hidden depths upon repeat listens. In the above example, a prevalence in Gauthier’s canon of neglectful, abusive or absent fathers loads those four simple words with baggage and backstory. For Gauthier (or her narrator), “I love my father” isn’t just a sentiment, it’s a hard-won choice.
For her most recent album, The Foundling, Gauthier has front-loaded the backstory. Press materials describe The Foundling as a concept album about “the emotional journey and aftermath” of Gauthier’s search for the birth mother who abandoned her at an orphanage in New Orleans following her birth in 1962. Though Gauthier has always done autobiography well, a confessional concept album is a big jump for any artist. Especially given such personal subject matter, a project like this could easily slip into rhetorical solipsism. Luckily, Gauthier fares pretty well here, in large part because of her careful way with words.
Early in the song cycle, “Mama Here, Mama Gone” presents the raw emotions of abandonment from the infant’s perspective: “Paradise receding / Paradise withdrawn / A tiny heart still beating / Mama here, mama gone.” Gauthier’s poetic precision is in top form here. The words, down to the syllable, are soft and feminine, and Gauthier delivers them in a hushed coo as if cradling a newborn. This feminine, mother-and-infant imagery is one of the album’s strongest motifs.
Gauthier also took great care structuring the album’s tracklist, which is centered around her journey back to New Orleans, culminating with a phone call to her mother. “March 11, 1962” is the story of that call, a nail-bitingly direct spoken-word country ballad that, again, just shouldn’t work. It does, and when Gauthier mutters, “You ask me why I’m callin’ / I don’t know why,” it’s a brutal and affecting moment. Moments like those aren’t the norm, however. Though it’s very emotional, The Foundling is a pretty understated album. Often, Gauthier dresses her pain in self-effacing humor (“Sideshow” and “Goodbye”). Elsewhere, (like “Sweet Words”, maybe the brightest light here) she displays a humble introspection so simply stated it’s easy to miss on initial listens.
The Foundling is certainly Gauthier’s least showy album, which is saying something. It’s also a notch or two down from her best, due to a handful of songs (mostly in the album’s latter third) that aim for Gauthier’s typically hard, simple honesty and instead land in the territory of gloomy repetition of aches and pains one would expect from this type of project. When it’s good, though, it’s very good, the type of good that doesn’t grab you. At her best on The Foundling, Gauthier carefully chooses words that are not only honest, but true.