Skip the self-help books on moving through the grieving process and get this album instead.
In the album’s powerhouse rock opener “Like It Used to Be”, Allison Moorer uses her Alabama-accented vocal to create a don’t-mess-with-me vibe, singing, “It ain’t ever gonna be like it used to be / Don’t want to say goodbye but it’ll set me free." This declaration of freedom announces only the beginning of a difficult process that we see worked out through her art. Unlike the majority of albums these days that are structured as collections of songs, Down to Believing is a thematic full-length album that creates a narrative and emotional arc. These songs are birthed out of loss and hardship, guilt and grieving, as they were birthed from the dissolution of her marriage to Steve Earle. In interviews for the album, Moorer has said directly that the songs are intensely personal and honest. We hear the “I” not as a persona or created character, but Moorer herself, representing what she feels and understands at the particular moment of writing and recording.
Knowing that it’s time to end something means also that life as you know it -- and your sense of self -- is about to change. Moorer, a country singer who now calls herself simply a singer-songwriter, enacts that change in the first five songs, a set of rock-inspired sounds full of emotional drama. For this album Moorer enlisted the help of Kenny Greenberg, both as producer and guitarist, and he has created some scintillating electric guitar leads. “Thunder and Hurricane” could be an ominous James Bond theme song. It’s followed by my favorite on the album, the scorching “I Lost My Crystal Ball”, which sounds like a ramped, bluesy version of something like Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away”. The acoustic-flavored title track slows the tempo and suggests the beginning of acceptance (“Anybody that ever loved anybody / Knows that this is part of the deal”), but the anger and emotion gets immediately cranked up again in “Tear Me Apart”, which ends with the lines “I’ve lived and learned / Guess I’m pretty smart / But I still don’t know why you want to tear me apart."
The album’s narrative and sonic arcs take a turn with the beautiful, stripped-down song “If I Were Stronger”, which shows Moorer moving away from the anger and drama of the earlier songs and into an exploration of what life will now hold. Regaining strength, she re-defines what her life will be, and therefore what she will be. She can express regret for the changes (“Wish I”) and yet also remind herself of what she still has, as she does in “Blood”, the beautiful song about her sister Shelby Lynne. She asserts“I’m doing fine” in a song of that name, and yet heartbreak of other kinds exists, as she suggests in “Mama Let the Wolf In”, a song about parenting her young son, who was recently diagnosed with autism. These intimate songs, compared to the earlier rockers, explore the world of hurt that she’s recovering from, but her response comes from a tough wisdom -- she’s no victim here. As a measure of how she’s facing pain squarely, she says, in “Back of My Mind”, that whereas Earle used to be in every thought, every dream, every memory, “Now you’re gone / I put you back where you belong / In the back of my mind." You can read numerous self-help books about how to move through the grieving process, but if you want to hear in compelling song what one woman’s journey has been, then skip the books and get this album.
In the final song, “Gonna Get It Wrong”, Moorer shows just how far she’s come. “Here I am”, she sings, “All worn down to the muscle and the bone." Though worn, she is ready for what will be next: “Seems like everything I do turns into don’t… / I know I’m gonna get it wrong, but it’s alright." The song’s lyric and sonics create together this emotional resting point, not just the slow country sounds of steel guitar and piano but also Moorer’s haunting, bittersweet but not ambivalent, vocal. In my first few listens to this album, I was disconcerted by the numerous styles of songs, which made it difficult for me to peg her music; I have now realized that the range works beautifully to convey the large palette of emotions that accompanies her journey. Moorer can sound angry and bluesy, like Lucinda Williams, or she can switch into a pure warm voice that sounds something like Mary Chapin Carpenter with more country. Perhaps the best comparison is to Rosanne Cash, another singer with ties to Nashville who has chosen to keep her distance and live, like Moorer, in New York City. Like Cash, Moorer vocally can inhabit different genres and help you believe each has a necessary magic. Taken all together, these songs make Down to Believing a deeply moving listen.
Splash image of Allison Moorer from her official website.