The party mood of Canadian country/folk singer Carolyn Mark’s first few albums—one was titled Party Girl, another had album cover photos of a cocktail party—gave way to a weightier tone, yet with her sense of humor still intact, on the 2005 marriage-themed duets album Just Married: An Album of Duets. That gravity even more thoroughly overtakes her latest album, Nothing Is Free. Again, she hasn’t left her wit behind, nor her winning way of lending an old-time country sensibility to very modern-day explorations of life at hand. But right from the start there’s bleakness to these meditations on modern life, to this album-length portrait of life as a series of transactions, sacrifices and disappointments.
The title phrase “nothing is free” enters the album at track five. “Pictures at 5”, a break-up song with the ultimate message that everyone always ends up paying (or, as a sign photographed for part of the album art phrases it, “They say the best things in life are free. Who the heck are they?”). It’s one of several songs on the album about disintegrating relationships (that and the sad veneer are likely to brand this a “break-up album”), and a clear statement of another theme that lurks throughout: the emotional costs of modern, capitalist society. The first three songs set this up by cleverly articulating the split-personality feeling that a life filled with choices can give. Opening song “The Business End” finds Mark singing slowly and philosophically, in a style that points towards post-midnight jazz crooning as an influence. This is explored more fully later in the album, that feeling out of sorts in today’s world, trapped by what could be or what isn’t or what should be or what shouldn’t. “Feeling bad about not feeling bad enough” is just one in a litany of conundrums. It’s followed with the clever, “too lazy to beat myself up / for being too lazy to, you know, beat myself up.”
“Happy 2B Flying Away” matches those dilemmas by capturing the uncertainty over notions of “home” that possesses the itinerant young-but-not-that-young adults of today. This was also captured brilliantly earlier this year by Jeff London’s album The Bane of Progress. “Think of all you miss by leaving / think of all you miss by staying,” she sings, “Everything could be on either side of the list.” Mark takes the song in an even more complex direction, though, by relating those feelings to more than just a decision of where to live: in this song those same feelings emerge in the act of buying or not buying a consumer good, in love relationships, in life directions in general. “1 Thing” does something similar with the notion of choice, connecting indecision about small matters and large ones together, in a seemingly carefree, but really more serious, way. As a lyricist that level of analysis is what sets Mark apart. In her songs, be they heartbroken ballads or rollicking party songs, there’s multiple levels of critical-thinking, about the world and how we live in it.
The guitar-playing on “Happy 2B Flying Away” is quintessentially country & western. Mark is backed by an excellent country band throughout the album, yet in many places they take a stark direction, moving a few big steps away from “countrypolitan”, towards the Canadian wilderness. By “Poisoned with Hope”, the song near the end of the album’s end where she truly dives into jazz-crooner mode, you can almost imagine Mark singing this song off in the woods somewhere, or inside her own head. That of course suits the contemplative nature of the album well. At the album’s core, contemplation through singing and songwriting is what’s going on here, especially on the subjects of love and sex, tackled thoughtfully in “The 1 That Got Away (With It)”, “Pink Moon and the Ladies”, “Get Along”, “Honest Woman”, and others.
The closing number, “Desintation: You”, ends like a prayer for healing but starts with the quintessential question, “how do you get where you’re going if you don’t know where you’re going?” Nothing Is Free might be the story of feeling lost, but it’s also an undeniably thoughtful analysis of the same. Less spark more reflection is the way for this album versus the previous ones, but her version of reflection is filled with a spark of its own, through questions and ideas filled with routes of their own. And while Carolyn Mark might be the thinking person’s folk singer, she never forgets about the art of writing a memorable song, and singing a song memorably, either.