She’s not reinventing any particular wheels. She doesn’t need to. The world will always, always need storytelling songwriters who help us understand our emotions and experiences, who spin a good yarn. Gretchen Peters is doing her version of what other American bards and masters of the album format like Beth Nielsen Chapman and Jude Johnstone do, and she’s doing it incredibly well. Her sound is more rustic and, perhaps, more mournful than those two competitors, her writing every bit as sharp and exact.
For Dancing With the Beast, she beckons us, using a singing voice that’s deceptively calm and pulchritudinous, to come close and hear a series of mainly dark, subtle, baleful tales. In every song on this riveting, elegiac album, a person is caught up in emotion because of events, or, in the case of “Arguing With Ghosts”, an absence of events. Peters realises, therefore, that her first task is to act the songs, and her second, to sing them. These are a series of one-act plays, but more compact and with more disciplined constructions.
“Arguing With Ghosts”, which might have served equally well as an album title, introduces a lonely, aged figure, in heartland America, who exists with only memories for company, and items of furniture with which she’s become grindingly familiar (“same old kitchen table/same old busted chair”). At no point, either here or later, can I find fault with the production (by Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh working with Peters), the arrangements or the performances. These songs are reflective, not ponderous, emotional, not sentimental, universal, not corny. Peters has in full measure the skill of telling a story by not telling all of it. Like a radio play letting audiences participate by filling in the blanks, the colours, and visual details suggested by the dialogue, so Peters’ songs leave ample room for the listener’s imagination to take part.
Among the characters Peters inhabits is a child with learning difficulties finding the wherewithal to protect a sibling from abuse (“Wichita”) and a woman who loiters at a truck stop, presumably for money (“Truckstop Angel”). Instruments weave themselves deftly in and out of the mix and these haunting, spectral songs, mainly variants on pop, country, folk, and Americana, are devastating in their emotional impact. The best singers neither over- or undersell a song and Peters can consider herself among them.
One after another, Peters presents characters who share a kind of bruised nobility. In Dancing With the Beast‘s title track, the protagonist is wrestling with someone or something, and although it’s possibly a domineering lover, it could be a substance. The way it’s left open to interpretation is one of its strengths. The heartrending “Disappearing Act” finds its narrator sanded down to the point of near-defeat and bleak clear-headedness by unremitting loss and bereavement, concluding, “People leave and they don’t come back / Life is a disappearing act.” The principal character in “Lowlands” is at odds politically with her immediate neighbours and no longer mixes with them (“I just turn out the lights and lock the door”). Portents of unhappiness are seemingly all around her, and the most she concedes is that “now and then a little light gets through”. Churning electric guitar at the bottom of the mix adds to the feeling of starkness and loss of comfort.
This is a dark album, to put it mildly, with songs that manage, with deft use of language, to cram a whole epic into three minutes. It’s astonishingly good writing – accessible without pandering. These are American stories from a writer who views the world with a marked abundance of compassion. “The Show” is perhaps the sole moment of autobiography, some light-heartedness, at last, an ode to the rootlessness of touring life and the pleasurable sensation of home finally becoming imminent. Only by the time of “Lay Low”, in and of itself an excellent song, do you get a sense of melodic ideas repeating themselves and of the fact that Peters works with a set of chords and chord progressions that is precise and somewhat limited. Still, she is at the very top of her game. No wonder Rickie Lee Jones is among her many admirers.