"Tell Me What You Ache For" Kathy Mattea sings, but the songs on Pretty Bird suggest the pain is still too strong for her to do so.
Captain Potato / Thirty Tigers
7 September 2018
Greil Marcus once offered a serious meditation on the connections between Bobby Gentry's monster 1967 hit "Ode to Billie Joe" and the American reaction to the war in Vietnam. He equated the casual indifference of a family watching the news on television and witnessing death and destruction to the nonchalant detachment of a family eating dinner and discussing the suicide of their daughter's boyfriend. While Gentry may not have concurred with Marcus' theory, she noted that many listeners were more concerned with the mystery of what she and Billie Joe threw off Tallahatchie Bridge, which was not her intent, than the heart of the song that was the indifference of the family to the narrator's pain.
Well, years have come and gone since we heard the song about Billie Joe. Singer Kathy Mattea covers it on her new record, Pretty Bird. Sure, it's a great song, but the cultural implications of what it means (or maybe more precisely, what Mattea expresses, have changed. The zeitgeist is different now. Mattea's sparse, acoustic rendition is somewhat self-contained. She accents words and syllables to emphasize their sounds rather than their meaning (especially the word "Tallahatchie"). Gentry's version looked outward at the coldness of other people. Mattea's looks inward at the narrator's sorrow, but she does so as a clinician. She does not sing with an ache. She just points it out. This aesthetic philosophy is true of the record as a whole.
This is the two-time Grammy Award-winning singer's first new album in six years. She suffered vocal problems and other issues that prevented her from recording. While she was considered a country artist, and even once won the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year honor, she's always displayed strong folk and bluegrass roots. This album fits in the modern folk tradition. She offers renditions of Hazel Dickens, Dougie MacLean, and Mary Gauthier tunes and a cover of the traditional "He Moves Through the Fair". The Gentry song itself is done folk style with a minimum of orchestration led by a solo acoustic guitar lead.
Mattea sings the cut "Pretty Bird" unaccompanied. Her solo performance has a formal grace. One appreciates Mattea's ability to annunciate and flutter when the song calls for it, but like the creature from which the tune gets its title, the track's beauty can only be appreciated from a distance as it flies away. Like her version of "Billie Joe", her voice does not inhabit the material as much as it documents what is happening. That's Mattea's greatest strength on the album, but it is also her biggest flaw. The singer offers tasteful aural confections, but she rarely makes one feel.
Consider her version Jesse Winchester's rueful "Little Glass of Wine". Winchester wryly bemoaned the mixed blessing of the grape. The original expressed that the pain of just living needed required one to find solace in drink. Wine, like the aging process, gives one the ability to get on but at a cost. "You're warm on my lips, warm as a tear," Mattea sings straight. It suggests stoicism, not the anesthesia of alcohol.
The most affecting track is Mattea's version of Joan Osborne's "St. Teresa" that concerns a drug-addicted mother living on the streets. Mattea's voice shakes as she documents the situation. The narrator upset by what she sees. Osborne's rendition made one feel for the protagonist more than the teller of the tale. The variation between the approaches two are telling.
Emily Dickinson famously wrote, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." Mattea has been through a lot over the past half dozen years. It's good she's back, but she's not the same as she once was. "Tell Me What You Ache For" she sings on a song by that name. The songs on Pretty Bird suggests she's not able to say. The ache is still too strong.