And I can’t stop trying to hold in my hands
that moment I could feel my heart expand
with more love than I thought could exist in the world
the hollows were gone, the emptiness filled
a life transformed down to the bone
this map of my heart is all that I own
I don’t like many female singers.
This isn’t fair, I know. But I want more from them. I want them to speak for me, in a way I never expect male singers to do (when they do, it’s a pleasant surprise). The dissonances between female singers and me hit me harder, and turn me off. When they bring sass I cannot; when they excuse things they should not (see: Amanda Palmer), when they don’t let their lyrics sink any deeper than the sheets, I turn them off.
Not so Mary Chapin Carpenter, or her 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of, which I hadn’t heard till now.
She uses words I use. Careen, cadence, stars. She is more honest than is necessarily safe. She allows for the contemplation of sorrow without either seemingly clinically distant or letting it overwhelm her. Without it defining her. While still allowing for the possibility of warmth.
She sounds exactly like she did in 1992, when my dad was at sea and my mom played her new album on audio cassette, in the kitchen in our rental under a stained-glass lamp that looked like the ones in restaurants. (I am, you see, biased.) At first we were baking figures we molded out of Fimo, but they all burnt, and eventually we laid the clay aside in favor of dinner. Mom stirred the soup as “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” came on, and she sang along. I interrupted her, asking if her liking the song meant she’d leave our dad. Mom was, after all, home with children, and cooking for them, as was the character in the song.
She pressed pause to explain no. She played the song again and said listen, listen to how young she did this, how little else she has in her life before she started a family. I had a life first, she said.
I don’t know what music reviewers say about Mary Chapin Carpenter, and I don’t want to know. Like so many reviewers, they seem given to jadedness, to being snarky for snark’s sake. And this album is anything but that. It’s always a relief to stumble onto someone too worn out by fashionable disdain to employ it, whether by experience or emotional soreness, and she comes to her earnestness through both. Even the rare twangier chordings — from which I flinch more out of reflex; an expectation of cultural remorse that I suppose is a product of the messages country music typically sends than because twangy chords are inherently awful to the ears — cannot detract from her tenderness and what, I suppose, feels like honesty, though I am of course in no position to know one way or the other.
“The Middle Ages,” in particular, is striking:
We used to dread lives rendered ordinary
we always said we’d own a grander story
but the only kind worth telling somehow
is the one about a jolt that makes you listen
that jagged lightning bolt of recognition
that love and kindness are all that matter now
Meanwhile, “Note On a Windshield” manages to be a startlingly gripping narrative song. I can count on one hand the number of narrative songs whose narrative power lives up to their melodic power, let alone songs that are gripping. When I find myself thinking “please no, please please please…” waiting on the next line of a song lyric, of all things, I mean, man. It’s beautiful.
I wish I could write about her the way men have written about Leo Kottke or Bill Fox. I would feel less disloyal, less deserving of critique for my musical preferences. But a little grain of resentment rubs me when I read such paeans: there is a whole constellation of people waiting to speak for you, when you’re a man listening to folk music. Everyone is just sitting around waiting to identify with you on how difficult it is thinking about The One Who Got Away, or how hard it is Working For The Man, or Finding A Girl Who Gets You. Or how what you believed in childhood isn’t what you believe anymore. Or how the gradual decline of your parents makes you empty inside.
I move through the world like an arrow that flies
Slicing the air as I’m mapping the skies
And way deep down the echoes remain
Memories sounding like rattling chains
But lately I think I am coming around
I’m liking the feel of my feet on the ground
And last night I stopped dead in these tracks
Recalling your hand on the small of my back
When I was younger how I took my time
Folly and wisdom form points on a line
From one to another with space in between
For the lessons you learn & the dreams that you dream
But tell me what happens when dreams don’t come true
How you overcome some things until they overtake you
Why you never got chosen, why you never felt claimed
By some passion or person that is never explained
I come on quiet but I’m fierce as a lion
Life will take us apart but we never stop trying
To proceed as if whole and intact
Like I felt with your hand on my back
But we are asked either to be sassy or to be in love. That’s about it. And that’s a really shallow list of ways to approach the world. So to hear someone like Carpenter — whose voice I freely admit to being more willing to believe in, familiar as it is — articulate a broader spectrum of existence is like a hug you thought you’d never get. Maybe it’s just because my mom is gone. Maybe it’s foolish. Maybe it’s dangerous projection — but I’d never go up to her after a concert or write her a letter* or bother her with the tawdry tale of how her music makes me feel. As with Critical Role, or any number of books or video games, I look at how fans interact with with creators — and how creators react to that interaction — and wince at joining their ranks. It seems better to be self-contained, reserved and silent in your fandom, than to be open and risk disgusting someone with the fervency of your gratitude.
And here, I guess, the applicable word is more gratitude than fandom, really. But it is still something that goes best unexpressed. For what I am grateful for is for her blurring of lines she has no reason to know have been drawn. Between laughter and silence, between a desk lit by fluorescent lights and a stained-glass lamp over a stove. Between having a mom and not having one. If my love for this album stems from the shock and pleasure of hearing thoughts I’ve felt expressed by someone else, it is…offensive, maybe, to assume that such thoughts were believed to have been sent into a void. You write, after all, intending to connect to people. What for a listener (or reader, or player) is a shock and a pleasure was surely never meant to be. They intended someone to connect with them. The fact that it was you is immaterial.
And I remember feeling I’m alive and in no need of saviors
If the past’s another country I’m at the border with my papers
Where is your heart if not inside you
where is home or are you lost
where is love if not beside you
I had no answers but they let me cross
*Not technically true; writing letters is the easiest — but the world is small, and the threat of meeting a stranger after you’ve bared your heart to them is somewhat unnerving.