Sunny Sweeney has moved to Nashville. Musically, she has gone more mainstream country than her previous Lone Star honky tonk persona allowed. Sweeney is not as happy as she used to be. Sure, she used to complain about the men in her life, parties getting out of hand, and wanting a family, but she sounded like she was having a good time just living her life her way. Now Sweeney sings about sex without love, unrequited affection, and being left alone with an ache in her voice. The 12 tracks on Married Alone reveal her proud independence and the price she pays for it. She may boast about controlling her emotions, but this is more about not crying than withholding joy.
As the album’s title suggests, just being with another person does not make one less lonely. “Together apart,” she croons on the opening line to the song “Married Alone” to a tune reminiscent of Buck Owens” classic “Together Again”. Sweeney declares that being with another person when love has disappeared feels worse than being by oneself. Vince Gill joins in with his sweet tenor voice to show what she misses. This theme of suffering alone, even when being with another person, ties many of the songs on the album together.
Sweeney knows she deserves better. She proclaims her desirability. Throughout the album, men always want to seduce her and keep her trapped in a relationship. She cannot be tied down, even though she teasingly admits that she would not mind being tied up in a kinky way. She prefers one-night stands where “Wasting One on You” is all she needs. Sweeney’s not as cold-hearted as she proclaims. The subtext to many of these conceited songs is that Sweeney is just protecting herself from being hurt again. She announces “Leaving Is Her Middle Name” as a way of making sure she would not be left alone. She wants to be missed instead of being the fool.
Texan Paul Cauthen (with collaborator Beau Bedford) produced the record. He joins her vocally on the beautifully sad, “A Song Can’t Fix Everything”. The tune (co-written by Sweeney and Lori McKenna) captures the magic of memory, with Cauthen’s deep voice serving as the reflected consciousness of the narrator. He demonstrates how one can hear a familiar song freshly by remembering how it felt the first time one heard it. The two other McKenna/ Sweeney compositions (“All I Don’t Need” and “Still Here”) are also among the highlights. Their small details, like the characters listening to old Neil Young songs while the banjo sound of his 1980s albums chirps in the background, offer a deep emotional resonance even as Sweeney stoically sings. Like him, Sweeney knows only love can break one’s heart.
Married Alone is Sweeney’s fifth studio album. While she has always been more than a one-trick pony, Sweeney has taken a bold step forward by revealing her vulnerabilities without oversimplifying the complications that happen when one takes chances. Getting married does not always mean a happy ending. Having good sex does not suggest a long-term relationship. Being sad is not the end of the world. Sweeney looks at her place in the world and finds her situation wanting, but she is not giving up. Her music offers solace while she watches and waits for her life circumstances to improve.