Kathleen Edwards is slowly becoming one of today's great songwriters. Sad stories are not her only strength. In the background is a wry sense of humor and critical eye for the subtle issues of her characters that makes her a songwriting force.
Kathleen Edwards’ career has been established with hard hitting lyrical work and a simple, but biting sarcastic tone. She was immediately thrown in the pile with other country-rock legends, and without a doubt; Edwards’ lyrical work is on the evolutionary chain from Emmylou, Dolly, and Patsy, but I always felt this distinction was a bit disjointed. Why does Edwards’ need to be thrown in with the “Women who Rock” category?
Edwards’ characters struck me as those who were at last fed up with the ass holes that plagued their lives. Without a doubt, track one from her first album Failure “Six O’Clock News” is an absolute gem. When Kathleen screams at the end that “I can’t feel my broken heart.” I do think of Emmylou and Dolly and Patsy because I know her character is absolutely destroyed by the narrative of her boyfriend (and father of her child) lying dead on the avenue from the piercing wound of a cop’s bullet, I also wonder if it’s sometimes because it’s the end of something that should have ended long ago. Edwards’ characters are filled with this deep sadness, but there is always a subtle hint of brutal irony and sarcasm in her characters. Although Patsy, Dolly, and Emmylou share this irony; theirs is a hidden, almost a wink. Kathleen is tired of the wink. Edwards can work a bunch of angles at once and she’s developed this presence throughout her career.
Edwards’ newest album, Asking for Flowers demonstrates this lyrical complexity. She’s a storywriter and a pretty damn good one. Her ability to turn dialogue and demonstrate symbolism all the while holding universality in her lyrical work demonstrates a songwriter who understands songwriting is a shared experience between author and listener. This is a universal sign of good songwriting. Guthrie, Dylan, Springsteen, Waits, Petty, Earle, and Tweedy get this. However, Edwards’ does this while balancing the complexities of telling the same sort of stories from the woman’s point of view. It’s the trick that makes her one of today’s finest songwriters.
Asking for Flowers contains Edwards’ best songwriting of her career. Songs like the foggy “Buffalo”, the ironic “The Cheapest Key” and the sad lament of Asking for Flowers demonstrate the usual Edwards’ fare, but the political notes of “Oil Man’s War” and “Oh Canada” almost sound Steve Earlish in their musical execution. At the very least, they can wrestle with some of the more vanilla tracks from Mellencamp.
However, I have personal affection for the light and subtle anger/jealousy induced “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory”. Tucked right after the terribly depressing story of “Alicia Ross”. A story of an apparent abducted child who is murdered and buried in her murderer’s backyard garden and just before the aforementioned “Oil Man’s War”.
“I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” is a nostalgic romp of the clichéd rock and roll marriage. One guy does all the work, but the other half gets all the credit. No doubt, the song itself reminds me of a ton of rock marriages where a lead singer received too much of the credit while the bass player stood in the back and got nothing out of it (I’m thinking of you John Paul Jones). Edwards’ work in the chorus bears the fruit of this thought.
You're cool and cred like Foggerty,
I'm Elvis Presley in the 70s.
You're Chateau Neuf,
I'm Yellow Label.
You're the buffet,
I'm just the table.
I'm a Ford Temple,
you're a Maserati.
You're The Great One,
I'm Marty McSorley.
You're the Concord,
I make the dough,
but you get the glory.
Each line demonstrates its paralleled binary. The cool Fogerty vs. the fat Elvis. The Chateau Neuf vs. and Yellow Label. The buffet compared to the table. The Ford Temple and the Maserati (later it’s the Dodge Sparkle and a Lamborghini). But the lyric that gets me every single time is “You’re the Great One, I’m Marty McSorley”.
First of all, Edwards’ is Canadian and required by law to mention hockey in a song or two. However, for the dedicated hockey fan, no comparison could make more sense than the skill and heroism of Wayne Gretsky and the oft-vilified enforcer Marty McSorley. Although eventually found guilty of assault with a weapon and sentenced to 18 months probation for a terrible blow to Boston Bruin Donald Brashear’s head, Marty McSorley stood, for many hockey fans, as the ultimate enforcer and one of the main reasons Gretsky was allowed to skate effortlessly around rinks and make a legendary career for himself (that and Gretsky was a pretty good hockey player) because no one wanted to mess with Marty McSorley. Those of us who could never skate well, but loved to knock the snot out of people; Marty McSorley made us all feel as a member of the NHL.
Tucking “I Make the Dough, You Get the Glory” inside an album with the dark and graying images that contribute to most of Asking for Flowers demonstrates that Kathleen Edwards’ gets songwriting. It’s not just the sad lament, the dark lyrics that make a songwriter. Sometimes the songwriter is allowed to make us feel bad while making us laugh (or feel nostalgic). This is probably why Edwards’ stands up vs. any songwriter: her ability to exemplify sadness and irony while sharing her straight anger is a difficult trick and each time out Kathleen Edwards keeps growing and developing her skill. She’s more than a “Chick who rocks”. Edwards’ is a masterful songwriter and one that deserves her moment.