We’ll work until it’s done
Every daughter, every son
And every soul that’s ever longed for something better…
— Carrie Newcomer, “If Not Now”
Carrie Newcomer’s voice is a supple alto, a comforting, soft sound that complements the jangle of strummed acoustic guitars. This is perfect, it seems, given that comfort is Newcomer’s primary function throughout her latest (10!) solo studio release, Before & After.
Newcomer sings lullabies for the God-fearing working class, finding acceptance, love, and hope in the minutiae of everyday life. Most of the time, she does this using the palette of pure folk music, with softly strummed or plucked guitars, gentle vocals, occasional pianos, and bass and drum lines that are quite obviously only there to support the very important stuff that Newcomer is doing. Occasionally, she veers ever so slightly into country music, and the rather lovely “If Not Now” is an insistent, if sleepy, spiritual. Those who have warmed to Newcomer’s brand of gentle folk in the past will surely find much to love about this latest work. Those who’ve never heard her will, at the very least, not be offended.
That said, Newcomer can only squeeze so much mileage out of such a limited style. You never hear anything approaching anger, excitement, desperation, or bliss. What starts out as a comforting, peaceful sound becomes vaguely workmanlike after 10 tracks. Yes, I realize there is beauty in the personal “revolution” of “a simple change of heart” (as Newcomer sings on the appropriately titled “A Simple Change of Heart”), but how does one bring it about? What are the successes and tragedies that can bring such a small but life-changing event about? We never find out. We are only told it can happen, that we should hope that it will.
It’s not that Newcomer never has a chance to tell us. Toward the end of the album is a song called “Do No Harm”, which, as the liner notes point out, is based on a short story called “Savages” by Scott Russell Sanders. The story, apparently, is that of a young boy named Isaiah Roth who witnesses a murder of Native Americans at the hands of devious white men, and goes on to preach the word of love that his father instilled in him anyway. Other than the shocking event in question, the song is a tale of the good in Roth’s heart via his father; the murder, while certainly the most tragic part of the tale, is almost incidental to the warmth and comfort of the tale of Isaiah Roth. There’s no outrage to be found, only love. This is by design, surely, but one can’t help but wonder if more detail in the journey might have offered more compelling listening. Sometimes, comfort comes in the form of identification, and surely little Isaiah experienced a little bit of self-doubt on his way to enlightenment. You’d never know it from Newcomer’s song.
Most frustratingly, Newcomer demonstrates that she has the capacity for more than just gentle comfort and hope on the album’s “bonus track”, “A Crash of Rhinoceros”. Almost too cute for its own good, it relates a light little tale of Eve naming the groups of animals (“a troubling of goldfish, a cluster of cats / a bloat of hippopatomi, a cloud of bats”, etc.). It simultaneously comes off as too precious for the album and demonstrates everything the album proper is missing. A little swagger or a sense of humor would have done a lot to make the rest of Before & After more palatable, but pushing it off to the end makes it seem utterly out of place.
Newcomer has been doing this for so long that she could probably write these songs in her sleep. She has an audience for this music, which won’t be going anywhere when they hear this release. While she’s established a well-worn groove, it would be nice to see her try something — anything — to break out of it. “A Crash of Rhinoceros”, despite its peripheral placement, seems like a start, but it’s not nearly enough. Gentle comfort will only take an artist so far.