Mary Chapin Carpenter is the master of the breathy earnest vocal, the kind that makes you think you will hear a revelation or at least something important every moment of the song. She uses this singing style in various ways. She can set you up for a joke one minute and then get to the serious heart of the matter the next. Usually, Carpenter executes this sparingly on her albums so when she does, it makes a big impact. However, Ashes and Roses is different. Carpenter uses this technique on every track. It’s a shtick, and perhaps it’s what she needs when singing about the private details of her life and universal truths. However, she ends up conflating the two. Sure, the personal is always political, but they are not interchangeable.
Carpenter sets the tone on the first track, “Transcendental Reunion”. She uses clever word play to offer the allegory of waiting for one’s luggage with that of final redemption in the hereafter. “Please deliver my suitcase / From all mischief and peril / How the sight of its circling / Is a hymn to the faithful”, Carpenter solemnly intones. Who among us hasn’t prayed for our baggage? The double meaning works because of its surface truth. But it’s also a bit much. You don’t have to be a believer to petition the Lord for the safe arrival of one’s stuff. Carpenter never cracks a smile so that the comparison weighs more than airlines will allow. No wonder she checked her bags. That’s a joke!
While one does not always have to signal when using humor, Carpenter usually leavens her compositions in some way. Not here. Whether she offers instructions on “What to Pack and What to Throw Away” or receives life lessons on “Learning the World”, Carpenter maintains a grave demeanor. As each of the baker’s dozen tracks move at the same pace and are the same relative length (between four and five minutes), the album can fall into a rut. That’s a shame because most of the individual cuts have merit. Together, they are less than their parts.
Even songs of promise, such as “New Years Day” and “Don’t Need Much to Be Happy”, look backwards more than forwards. Bummer. To be fair, Carpenter has experienced her share of traumas including the death of her father, a divorce, and a major illness. There is nothing wrong with using music as a catharsis, but Carpenter merely sounds sad. She is not inspired enough by surviving these to shout a barbaric yawp with joy or growl with anger at the hand life recently dealt her. She mopes. Carpenter is talented enough to turn the material into song, but she needs help taking it to a higher level.
She is abetted by talented side musicians such as Russ Kunkel on drums, Duke Levine on electric and acoustic guitars, Matt Rollings on piano and B-3 organ, and Glen Worf on bass. They provide a rich, atmospheric background upon which Carpenter can paint her pictures with words. James Taylor also joins her on one track, “Soul Companion”, but even he can’t Carpenter out of her funk. The duet never really goes anywhere despite Taylor’s upbeat declaration proclaiming the wonder of his soul companion. If he was still singing with Carly Simon, I have no doubt she would kick out the jams on this song and make Taylor try harder instead of bringing him down. But that would be a different record than this one.