Some albums cut to the heart, even if they just repeat old truths about the specialness of home, that booze doesn’t cure one’s ills but sure makes the pain more bearable, life’s too short, etc. Or even if the details of the singer’s stories don’t match one’s own because of gender, race, etc. It doesn’t matter as the performer delivers observations and feelings with a panache and pride that transcends these limitations. Such is the case with Sunny Sweeney’s latest album, Trophy, which comes with the added bonus of a sense of humor and style.
The material is deep without ever being too heavy because Sweeney offers multiple insights into whatever topic she delves into. Sweeney co-wrote eight of the ten songs here, and most of them are from a distinctively female outlook, including one about the desire to have a baby (“Bottle by My Bed”). Sweeney turns the usual trope about the craving for alcohol to fill an empty place into a woman’s yearning for a child of her own. It’s a “tear in my beer” type of song with mournful fiddle and steel guitar, but Sweeney’s condition is just temporary. She may declare how bad she hurts for a kid, but she acknowledges that she and her husband are only waiting for the right time in their lives to have one. So when Sweeney sings that she would trade in her “high-heeled shoes for a high chair in the dining room” and that she’d “rather be in a car pool line than this big cold limousine”, she knows she’s being self-indulgent. We all make choices and regret the ones we don’t pursue, but there’s usually time to change one’s mind. Sweeney still can replace the beer bottle with a baby bottle in the future.
This perspective allows Sweeney to make personal songs universal and the more party-oriented material self-conscious. On songs such as “Grow Old with Me”, she pairs up the differences between lovers to show her mate how that has only made their relationship stronger. In contrast, on “Better Bad Idea”, Sweeney rocks out while singing of sex and sin. The song begins with the lines “Let’s wash our dirty minds / with a bottle of white wine / and do some things that we can’t take back” and offers a litany of possibilities from there. But as the title implies, she’s also open to suggestions.
Sweeney’s a true romantic, not only about love and family but about the Lone Star state as well. “There’s Nothing Wrong with Texas” comes straight out of (or is that George Strait out of) the tradition of songs penned by those who find the state a different country than the rest of America. The track would make Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett proud.
The two cover songs, Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” and Brennan Leigh and Noel McKay’s “Pills” fit right in with the other material. These tunes take a hard look at human frailty with a modicum of compassion and an awareness of how close one is to going over the edge when times are bad. Sweeney’s voice conveys empathy without overstatement and acknowledges that we’ve all been to the precipice but have somehow managed to come back and have even learned from the experience.
Of course, that is not always the case. As Sweeney knows, sometimes people die. Trophy ends with a song about death that’s as dark as the grave. “Unsaid” examines the pain of the bereaved. People we love die, and there’s nothing we can do to change that fact. Sweeney wishes she could talk to the dead one more time to express her feelings, but on a deeper level, she knows that wouldn’t change anything. The song ends abruptly to re-enact that fact. Sweeney’s expression of grief makes said what was unsaid, and that itself is a therapeutic act. The album may be over, but one can always play it again.