Mary Chapin Carpenter remains one of the most authoritative and genuine female singer songwriters around, precisely because she fits the current Nashville vogue for manufactured country 'product' with refreshing unease.
She can always be relied upon to produce intelligent, well-written albums about love, life and everything in between. Not the contrived plastic pop of teenagers barely out of diapers, but the assured, reflective voice of a performer who often lives her life through her songs and lives her songs through her life.
It's been four years since her last batch of such gems, and although A Place in the World was received poorly in some quarters (unjustly, I believe), Time* Sex* Love* is nothing short of an inspired follow-up. Full of lyrically rich and musically rewarding songs as the enrapturing "Slave to the Beauty" or the shivery "King of Love", this is a mature album that just improves with every listen, and demands your utmost attention from start to finish.
Clocking in at a lengthy 70 minutes, there are 15 songs in total, but the standard -- or interest -- hardly wavers. The first single, "Simple Life", is a clever look at the stresses of modern life, but ironically enough, isn't the tune that gravitates most towards radio playlists. That song is opener "Whenever You're Ready", which jauntily bounces along with the kind of unashamed pop "na na nas" not normally associated with Carpenter. More familiar is the rootsy, soaring country-rock of "This Is Me Leaving You" or "In the Name of Love", as well as standout rocker "The Long Way Home", on which Duke Levine's guitar licks never sounded so good.
Carpenter is arguably even more effective when the understated piano of Jon Carroll or expressive percussion of Dave Mattacks accompanies her acoustic guitar and wonderfully graceful voice. The gentle philosophy of "Late for Your life", the breathless beauty of "Someone Else's Prayer", or the enchanting force of "The Dreaming Road" all stand as prime examples of such musical harmony.
However, it's the astounding lyrical soul-searching of "Alone But Not Lonely" that is the defining moment of this disc, and like the heartfelt "Swept Away" proves that with every new album Carpenter becomes more open-hearted. Rarely has she sounded so compelling, and with a back catalogue that includes the likes of Stones in the Road, that's saying something.