While there are several songs here full of hope, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s latest work is led by tracks that are honest, dark, and turbulent.
Since the beginning of this millennium, there have been a few world events that have made many people take stock of what’s going on, and, sadly, of what’s not taking place. The musical community has done some things to drive certain points home, including staging Live 8 in 2005, the American “Vote For Change” tour in 2004, and the recent Project Red campaign. At the same time, several artists have also taken these same world events and tragedies and were inspired to create something from it. Although she’s never been shy about standing up for causes and organizations she believes in, singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has also had recent events, including Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans aftermath, fuel her creative juices. As a result, her latest album, The Calling, is a thoughtful yet pretty glimpse at what she’s been seeing and not seeing in recent years.
The singer made inroads years ago with a Cajun laced “Twist and Shout” hit, but don’t expect any of that feel or verve on the opening title trac, with its swaying, waltz-like quality. Accented with some pedal steel, but driven primarily by her lyrics and the strumming of an acoustic guitar, Carpenter refers to zealots and preachers, the lonely and the lost. Although the song seems to be a tad dark, there is a crack of daylight or hope near the conclusion. It seems like a song that wouldn’t be out of place on an Emmylou Harris album. Carpenter switches gears for “We’re All Right”, which is more of the usual poppy, radio-friendly adult contemporary flavor. While it’s not as attractive as “Passionate Kisses” or some of her earlier favorites, it still shouldn't be passed up or skipped over.
The record generally has a stripped down feeling, especially on the first real gem here, entitled “Twilight”, which sounds like it was recorded in one take with a lone microphone in the wee hours of a barren studio. Just the slightest percussion and some pedal steel color the song, but generally Carpenter shines by keeping it so very simple and elegant, drawing one in basically from the first verse onward. While not as somber as anything off Springsteen’s Nebraska, it still possesses that dark, haunting quality to it. But after that, the musician shifts gears totally with the bouncy yet smart adult contemporary pop of “It Must Have Happened”, which breezes by without any bumps or hiccups. And while it’s a good song, it’s one that you feel Carpenter could have done in her sleep, with the sweet harmonies almost making your eyelids heavy.
Fortunately, she reverts back to “Twilight” territory with the tender and bittersweet “On and on It Goes” that showcases her pipes, her guitar, a killer melody, and a story that is basically about life with its happy and sometimes unhappy accidents. And what seems to be the trend on the album, she changes gears back into the happy go-lucky pop sound of “Your Life Story”, which is a highlight in terms of the up-tempo tunes, with just a hint of roots rock buried deep in the track. She goes to the well once too often, though, with “On with the Song”, a slow-building number that is politically driven but doesn’t seem to work as well.
Perhaps the album’s crowning achievement is “Houston”, which is sung through the eyes of a family who have had their homes and lives destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and are now heading west with the clothes on their back and little else. “Mama’s got her baby sleeping in a grocery cart / Daddy’s eyes are hazy wondering where they are”, she sings in the opening lines, setting the stage for a journey that too, too many people endured in 2005. It’s a very moving, hair-raising track that seems to find its place at the album’s core. A close second would be “Closer and Closer Apart”, a gentle piano ditty that, with some colorful but simple wordplay, seems to describe the decline of a relationship.
Overall, The Calling contains little of the vitriol found on an album like The Revolution Starts… Now by Steve Earle. She’s not telling the FCC to perform an act of self-love or anything like that. However, she gets her message across in calmer tones with “Why Shouldn’t We”, which asks the listener to take action in the simplest of ways. The album, like so much of her other work, should be on year-end lists nine months from now.