Brandy Clark
Photo: Victoria Stevens / Sacks & Co.

Brandy Clark Presents Herself With Brandi Carlile’s Help

Brandy Clark is a mixed bag. The country singer-songwriter sees herself and others with a well-trained eye but doesn’t always reveal what she has learned.

Brandy Clark
Brandy Clark
Warner Records
19 May 2023

Brandy Clark grew up in western Washington State, but she says it wasn’t until returning home after she moved to Nashville that she realized how awesome the Northwestern landscape was. In the press notes to her eponymous new album, Clark confesses that it took leaving for her to “realize just how tall the trees were and how majestic the mountains in my childhood backyard would always be”. She could not only not see the forest for the trees, but she also didn’t even notice the trees.

There’s something ironic about that in lieu of the singer-songwriter’s reputation. Critics routinely praise the multi-Grammy nominated country musician for her impressive ability to get the facts right. That can be the case on the 11 tracks of her latest release. Clark’s lyrics often combine keen observations with a smart-aleck attitude to reveal the nuances of psychosocial life. She understands what the specifics convey, such as when she describes her grandmother, who shops on layaway at Sears and buys Folgers coffee by the can. The facts implicitly tether the story to a time, place, and social class without directly saying so. The focus remains on the song’s protagonist.

Although this is Clark’s fourth full-length album, this is the first to use her name as its title. All the songs but the opening one are seemingly autobiographical and confessional. The first concerns two sisters who kill an incestuous father. It’s an odd beginning to a self-titled record. The LP might be more consistent without it, but it is a damn good song. “Ain’t Enough Rocks” expressively describes the hurt inflicted by “a wolf in daddy’s clothing” as well the emotional catharsis of the murder and its coverup, aided by Derek Trucks’ electric guitar howls.

Putting the song first brings attention to its difference from the rest in a way analogous to not seeing a striking landscape until leaving. One might not appreciate the benefits of a stable home life with loving parents until one goes out into the world and sees how others live. Perhaps this song’s prominence at the beginning is just a way of getting a perspective on her personal blessings.

Fellow Washingtonian Brandi Carlile produced the record, which was recorded in Malibu with Matt Chamberlain on drums, Sebastian Steinberg on bass, Dave Palmer on piano, Jedd Hughes on guitar, Kyleen King on viola, Josh Neumann on cello, as well as Sista Strings (aka Monique and Chauntee Ross) on cello and violin, Steve Fishell on pedal steel and Jay Carlile on background vocals and harmonica. Clark’s take on the “Northwest” reveals her mixed appreciation of the two women’s shared geography. With tongue in cheek, Clark celebrates a place where “St. Helen’s ash is evergreen” and “most of the summer feels like fall”. The song rocks for four minutes until the lyrics end, and then a classical string quintet takes over for the last 50 seconds. This coda’s more formal style suggests the scenery’s rugged majesty overwhelms its environmental circumstances (volcano soot and cold weather). Clark may now look homeward for inspiration, but she’s still not moving back.

Carlile duets with Clark on the sincere “Dear Insecurity”, again using humor to cut the seriousness down to human size. “This time feels like love / She’s really sure of me / So, please don’t fuck this up,” the singers croon to themselves. They understand delf-doubt is part of who they are. Uncertainty is part of the package. On this and several other songs, including “All Over Again”, “Best Ones”, and “Take Mine”, the observations are more inner-directed than explanatory. Clark shares the pain, but alas, the details are missing. It’s not so much not seeing the forest for the trees as being lost in the woods of one’s feelings.

The album Brandy Clark is a mixed bag. The singer-songwriter sees herself and others with a well-trained eye but doesn’t always reveal what she has learned. She needs to step outside of herself more lest she not realize the significance of what her emotions are telling her.

RATING 7 / 10