Lori McKenna is a champion of wholesome blue-collar values. She sings about loving one’s parents, husband, and children, being honest and kind to one’s friends and neighbors, and the ordinary pleasures of life. On the surface, her music may seem corny. But the truth is, McKenna is such a talented songwriter and performer that she and her songs sparkle. She’s a maven of aphorisms as well as song-length fables. Her latest album, 1988, is another excellent record by one of the master Americana-style singer-songwriters of our time.
The Massachusetts musician has a way with words that bring out the depth in simple homilies. She’s nostalgic but more reflective than regretful. She pens lines about “When the way it was / Wasn’t what it seemed.” McKenna knows one cannot return to one’s youth, yet the pivotal moments in life are sometimes trivial. Who can’t look back and wonder what if…?
Espousing a more conventional morality makes McKenna more radical in terms of her acceptance of others. She promotes the advantages of getting older and more loving. She’s also not afraid or ashamed to be angry. Her screed “Wonder Drug” points out the larger complicities of Big Pharma, teen insecurity, and earnest administrators in the current drug mania. She asks why love can’t be the wonder drug but knows the answer. We are imperfect, and shit happens.
The often acoustic, pop, country, and rock music bears the traces of past forbears like Patty Loveless, Kathy Mattea, and Martina McBride during their commercial primes. Dave Cobb produced the record in Savannah, Georgia.
McKenna is an optimist (mostly), but she is also a realist. Her characters have imperfect pasts. They have let others down and themselves, but they keep pushing on. The narrator of “Killing Me” asks her partner, “Would it kill you to be happy?” Life has its ups and downs. McKenna understands it’s easier and frequently the better course of action to enjoy the good rather than dwell on the bad.
Or as she lovingly puts it in the blessing “Happy Children”, “When you’re young you want to be old / When you’re old you want to be young / I wish you all the best in case this life’s the only one.” This is the wisdom of old age from the 54-year-old singer-songwriter. She invokes the spirit of “The Old Woman in Me” to note that she’s currently in her prime. “I’m a work in progress,” she sings proudly. Past, present, and future merge and reveal one’s character. While she may take on a different persona to show the various aspects of her personality, they are all one personification, contradictions and all.
In other words, McKenna contains all of us. Guess what? She’s happy! The title song takes its name from the year she got married. It’s a love song. She looks back at her life and thanks “God for the plans he made”. There were bad times and worse, but she and her husband have much to be grateful for. Most of us do, too. This doesn’t make one a Pollyanna or Pangloss. McKenna’s mom died when she was seven years old. McKenna was married at age 19 and a mom by 20. She’s experienced her share of tough times. 1988 finds her still living in the moment by looking to the past and realizing life can be good.