For her latest album Dragonfly, Australian roots artist Kasey Chambers needed some guest appearances, two bands, two recording sessions, and two discs to make her statement. She didn’t succumb to excess; every inch of that reach stretches somewhere important. Chambers hides nothing, sparing no emotion but also not holding back on her humor or her strength or her stylistic flexibility. On a disc that struggles with history, race, and faith, Chambers pulls on Christianity while staring at apostasy and falls in love while counting her losses. It’s a stunning statement, bold and big and essential.
There’s a sense in which the two discs take different approaches. The first one, produced by Paul Kelly, fits more in a country mold. The second, produced by Chambers’s brother Nash Chambers, gets a little bluesier and has some more swamp in it. The loose division falls apart, though. Chambers covers too much genre ground in too many places to get pinned down. There’s a little Nashville, but a little Appalachia, but a little old-timey stuff, but a little, well, all of it. Ballads and rockers and pickers.
Her clear vision holds it all together. Nothing feels scattershot, although both the traditional “Satellite” and the Keith Urban shared “If We Had a Child” mark noticeable shifts, the former for its sound moving toward CMA territory and the latter for Urban’s sudden and familiar presence on what has been such a uniquely Chambers vision.
That vision, while unique, remains precise in its breadth. The roll of the title track offers some sweetness mixed with some background pain. That’s hardly the central image of a de-centered storyteller showing what she has. The funny and disarming “Talkin’ Baby Blues” reads like a biography but gives way to less immediate but more emotional moments. Torch song “Ain’t No Little Girl” (present here in two forms) sounds like a defiant, defining anthem, but Chambers can’t be circumscribed by a single act.
The scope of Dragonfly alone, including both personal work and character studies, would make it worth a listen, revelatory as an artist’s approach to saying all the things. That alone wouldn’t make it essential. Chambers nails her writing on each song, and her phrasing and delivery make her precise phrases work. Opener “Pompeii” relies on a traditional structure, but Chambers uses cool vocals and surprising lyrics (the Caesar who died for the working man turns out to be Julius – but it works). The relatively spare song sets up a double-disc’s worth of listening by pointing out that attention will be rewarded.
But almost any of these songs could have served that purpose (even if it’s hard not to think of the disc opening with just this strumming). It’s all part of a well-crafted but not overly mannered kaleidoscope. Somewhere in the midst or, better, everywhere in the sum, is both Chambers the artist and Chambers the person, inextricable to a stranger. What Chambers said in Jonestown might get us close to a vision statement: “Don’t you see all that I am is all I’m believing.” She has a strong center, and it holds, and at times it feels like two discs might not even be enough.
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