It’s almost hard to believe that the last time Mary Chapin Carpenter had a bona fide hit was in 1996. Part of that disbelief comes from the fact that many of today contemporary mainstream country stars owe a copious debt to Carpenter, whose soulful and intimate songs never committed to one specific label. The pop-inflected roots folk that Carpenter crafted earned her a string of hits and is still well alive in the likes of Sugarland, Little Big Town, and even (to a much lesser degree) Taylor Swift.
Then again, the fact that Mary Chapin Carpenter was a mainstream country star was a bit of a mystery from the start. Carpenter was Ivy League-educated and never compromised or hid her feminist leanings. Her artistic persona may have made her the black sheep of Nashville, but it was also a breath of fresh air when compared to her contemporaries. With songs as sturdy and sophisticated as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, or her demanding and justified read of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses”, there was no denying Carpenter her spot at the top of the charts.
Carpenter’s inability to score another top ten hit has more to do with Nashville’s nasty gender politics and less to do with the artist, who still has a keen eye for detail, a strong sense of melody, and an aching, honey-dipped alto suited perfectly for belting out emotion or subtly tackling an intricate line. Those three factors are once again displayed gracefully on The Age of Miracles.
Comprised of Carpenter’s typical album structure of uptempo numbers and mournful ballads, Age is classic MCC: sober, insightful, whimsical, and beautiful. Like her previous outing Time*Sex*Love, there’s a sense of New Ageism running throughout the lyrics that can come off as a bit trite — such as the lilting “Zephyr”. However, when paired with a strong backbone, they’re given real flight, such as the should-be-hit “What You Look For”. Meanwhile, “I Put My Ring Back On” is as forceful in content and production as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”, and “The Way I Feel” gives Carpenter plenty of room to relive the frustration she displayed so measured and matured on “Passionate Kisses”.
The ballads are some of Carpenter’s most exquisite. The opening track, “We Traveled So Far”, and the title track express a real sense of persistence, and the lovely “Iceland” is both reflective and painful enough to carefully boost its use of mythological metaphors without coming off as heavy-handed. “Mrs. Hemingway” is yet further proof of the influence Carpenter’s brand of songwriting has had on today’s Nashville scene.
If there’s not any huge shift from the album’s stylistic composition, at least it rarely sounds homogenous or monotonous. Still, at times, one wishes Carpenter would take more sonic risks or ditch some of the New Age metaphors that can sound frivolous. However, The Age Of Miracles confirms once again (not that it was ever in question) that Carpenter is a strong songwriter and a seasoned singer. For every single Sugarland, Lady Antebellum, or Swift rackup, Carpenter should be thanked.