I’ve Mined That Song Forever, Part 1: 25 favorite albums from 2019

USA Portrait - Joe Henry

It’s the time of year when I tend to enthuse, at some length, about the bumper crop of top-shelf records released in the preceding 11 ½ months. This year, I’ll cut to the chase: My list of 25 favorite albums from 2019 includes at least three or four masterpiece-level achievements, and that’s estimating conservatively. The title slotted in at #5 could easily have topped the lists of yesteryear. Don’t believe anyone who tells you the well has dried up, or that they just don’t make albums like they used to. This year’s embarrassment of riches reveals such foolishness for exactly what it is.

A few notes: Witness-bearing was a recurrent theme in many of 2019’s most bracing records, with astute songwriters taking stock of a pervasive sense of loss and chronicling it without any sugar-coating or sentimentality; consider albums by Elbow and by Over the Rhine, each written in the shadows of crumbling empires and fraying bonds; each written to remind us that things fall apart, or, as another 2019 band suggest, that the center won’t hold. Albums by Joe Henry and Nick Cave are clear-eyed in their assessment of loss, mortality, and grief. Albums by Allison Moorer and Our Native Daughters consider different kinds of trauma and its lingering impact.

And yet, there were also several excellent albums to suggest, even amidst wreckage and ruin, that there lies before us abounding opportunity to connect with one another: Andrew Bird counsels us to log off of Twitter and offer something tangible into the world; Rhiannon Giddens exhibits radical neighborliness through boundary-crossing folk songs.

It was a boon year for singer/songwriters, with several veteran scribes releasing albums that stand proudly alongside their best work: Henry and Cave, Moorer and Bird, but also John Paul White, Todd Snider, Patty Griffin, Hayes Carll, and others. (Seven albums in, surely Taylor Swift qualifies for veteran status as well?)

One last thing: Only upon completion of the list did I tally up the male-female breakdown, finding that roughly 18 out of these 25 records were made by women. (Your count may vary depending on how you want to categorize husband/wife teams.) It seems well-proven by now that great music by women isn’t as well-publicized or promoted as it should be, but it’s certainly being made, and it’s really not difficult to find.

Anyway: These are 25 albums that meant the world to me in 2019. As ever, the rankings are fairly fluid, and I wouldn’t get too hung up on them. Each title selected here is worthy of your full time and attention.

  1. Walk Through Fire | Yola
    walk through fire

The British vocalist Yola is a singer of regal power, clarity, and directness. What makes her Dan Auerbach-produced Walk Through Fire so striking is how she sends gutbucket soul rippling through carefully-structured and meticulously-arranged variations on country and R&B, as if to simulate how roiling emotions bubble up through the sincerest intentions of poise and decorum.

  1. To Myself | Baby Rose
    to myself

The songs of Baby Rose are as crisp and clean as any Amy Winehouse banger, as gnarled and textured as D’Angelo’s wiry funk. They are perfectly evocative for lyrics that are haunted and panged with doubt, and a voice etched with experience far beyond her years.

  1. The Highwomen | The Highwomen
    highwomen

The Highwomen were assembled to address a particular problem— namely, gender inequity on the country radio charts. It’s to their enormous credit that their Dave Cobb-produced debut proves its point without preaching it, largely avoiding didacticism in favor of tight harmonies, uproarious jokes, good-natured camaraderie, and tough-as-nails honky tonk.

  1. Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 | Todd Snider
    cabin session

Just wait til you hear “Talking Reality Television Blues,” in which Todd Snider deconstructs a familiar folk form, offers a capsule history of the entertainment industry, and draws a straight line from Michael Jackson’s rise-and-fall to the ascent of the 45th President, all within the span of a single track. It’s just one of several high-wire songwriting feats on Snider’s opus-to-date, an album that’s bare-bones in its arrangement but lavish in its imagination.

  1. Crushing | Julia Jacklin
    Crushing

“Don’t know how to keep loving you, now that I know you so well,” admits Julia Jacklin on one of several masterful slow-burners. Her album Crushing is painstaking in its appraisal of how intimacy with another person can lead to blurred identity, compromises of physical space, a creeping sense of erasure. It’s all played out with sobering tactility; grinding guitars, creaking pianos, bruising percussion.

  1. Absolute Zero | Bruce Hornsby
    absolute zero

For his latest set of songs, Bruce Hornsby turns to the language of mathematical theory, literature, and quantum physics in an effort to impose some order on the unruliness of human emotions. That only deepens Hornsby’s anthropological mysteries, and his adventurous arrangements (equal parts arena rock, studio experimentation, free-form jazz, and chamber folk) bear witness to worlds of inexhaustible allure.

  1. Canterbury Girls | Lily & Madeleine
    canterbury girls

For anyone who prefers their pop euphoria laced with strychnine melancholy. The fourth album from sister act Lily & Madeleine is a sweet-and-salty coming-of-age saga that posits romantic dissolution as an opportunity for personal discovery. Includes candescent production from the same team that made Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, last year’s Album of the Year honoree, but the most brilliant special effects are the sisters’ tight harmonies.

  1. Amidst the Chaos | Sara Bareilles
    amidst the chaos

She doesn’t need to spell it out for you. You can tell from the title that Amidst the Chaos is Sara Bareilles’ reckoning with what life feels like in the disorienting days of 2019, and it’s a feeling she explores through an elegant series of subtexts, implications, and plausible deniabilities. The lean production from T-Bone Burnett matches the finesse of Bareilles’ writing, and highlights her easeful way with soaring melody.

  1. Western Stars | Bruce Springsteen
    western stars

How is it possible that, almost 50 years after Springsteen’s debut, he is still making albums unlike any he’s made before? Western Stars is distinguished not merely for its handsome orchestral pop classicism, but also for its point of view: Springsteen has spent most of his career writing about men chasing redemption, but here settles down with characters who know they’ve run out the clock. They’re left to make peace with the choices they’ve made, and the people they’ve become. 

  1. The Center Won’t Hold | Sleater-Kinney
    center wont hold

Tragically, this album is likely to be remembered primarily for proving its own point; for how inviting St. Vincent into the fold led to the departure of drummer Janet Weiss and the rupture of golden-era Sleater-Kinney. Better to remember it for its lurching, mutated, and corrosive take on their signature sound; for its impish evocation of dissarray; for how it allows the punk veterans to try something different while also playing to their strengths.

  1. Open Book | Kalie Shorr
    kalie shorr open book review

It’s not for nothing that Kalie Shorr opens her first album with a song called “So Much to Say.” Throughout Open Book, she comes across like a prodigiously gifted songwriter who’s been stockpiling material, and is bursting at the seams to unveil it. There wasn’t a country album released all year to boast sharper writing; her jokes, her confessions, and her therapeutic asides are all equally withering.

  1. Blood | Allison Moorer
    allison moorer blood review

Allison Moorer’s adolescence was shattered by a formative tragedy: A murder-suicide that claimed both of her parents. She has had decades to consider if and how she might speak to this trauma, and in 2019 she chose to tell her story both in an acclaimed memoir and a compact, powerful album, both titled Blood. The Blood album is a triumph of narrative courage and clarity, and a thoughtful reckoning with how we all must carry the past with us but not allow it to define us.

  1. Silences | Adia Victoria
    silences

Singer/songwriter Adia Victoria announced Silences by affirming her intention to make the blues “dangerous” again, an implicit acknowledgement that her chosen idiom can sometimes err toward safe conservatism. You needn’t worry about encountering anything overly comforting on this slanted, modernist reworking of blues tropes; Victoria plunges a knife into God’s chest in the opening song, and spends the rest of the album torn between fleeing the Devil and running into his arms.

  1. Patty Griffin | Patty Griffin
    patty

Patty Griffin made 10 studio albums before deciding to name one after herself; it raises the specter of autobiography, and if the songs on this album don’t quite feel like a memoir, they do form a meaningful meditation on the nature of self. Griffin survived cancer in order to make this record, and while she never references it directly, the experience obviously brought focus and clarity to these songs of struggle and survival. It’s her richest collection yet, performed with appealing intimacy and warmth.

  1. Love and Revelation | Over the Rhine
    love and revelation

“Is it sacrilegious dancing in the light of all we’ve lost?” That question comes toward the end of Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation, an assured collection of songs that extend their unmatched legacy of finding grace notes amidst heartache and grief. Capping a trilogy of fine albums released in the 2010s, Love and Revelation handles deep melancholy with a gentle touch, sounding as comfortable and as lived-in as anything the band has made. It emanates empathy, voiced with a career-best, slow-burn turn from singer Karin Bergquist. Some will tell you this is the most accomplished Over the Rhine album yet… but at this point, it’s madness to think you could pick just one.

  1. Songs of Our Native Daughters | Our Native Daughters
    ournativedaughters

What’s more miraculous: The one of the year’s most celebrated Americana/roots albums features four black women unflinchingly bearing witness to the historic and ongoing consequences of the Atlantic slave trade? Or that, impossibly, the album wrests moments of defiant joy and hard-won hope from the bleakest of circumstances? Noble and necessary work; deeper and richer than you’d think possible; abounding in knowledge, but most noteworthy for its wisdom.

  1. My Finest Work Yet | Andrew Bird
    my finest

As advertised. Bird levels his natural affinity for whimsy at our grim national mood and pervading sense of discord, whistling, crooning, and plucking his way through songs that shun self-satisfied rage in favor of the hard work of neighborly love and bridge-building. It’s as funny and strange as any Bird record, but also earnest and direct in ways he seldom allows himself to be. “This ain’t no archipelago,” one song concludes; a reminder, even in these tribalized days, that none of us are islands.

  1. Father of the Bride | Vampire Weekend
    father of the bride

Ennobles all the tiredest cliches about classic “double albums”— how its charm is in its sprawl, how minor songs contextualize major ones, how the discursions reinforce key themes. Validates the pleasures of pure studio craft as surely as any album from Steely Dan or Fleetwood Mac, offering endless textures and tiny details to get lost in. Justifies its Bible references and elder-millennial hand-wringing with a dazed portrait of privilege and malaise. There’s a lot going on here, and it rewards whatever investment of time and attention you care to make.

  1. Breakdown on 20th Ave. South | Buddy & Julie Miller
    breakdown on 20th ave south

Decidedly not a breakup album. What it is is a reminder of marriage’s high stakes, the need for daily engagement and attentiveness, the gravity of love and the requirement of self-sacrifice. The mere existence of a new Buddy and Julie album is one of 2019’s happiest tidings, and it would be enough if all they gave us were those sweet harmonies, the deep blues of Buddy’s guitar, the ramshackle bedroom production. All the better that the Millers offer songs of such pungent emotion, bruised humor, persuasive sweetness, and hard-won wisdom.

  1. Wildcard | Miranda Lambert
    wildcard

It’s possible that we all know a little too much about Miranda Lambert; that we’ve gleaned too many personal details from the tabloids, read a little too much into some of her songs. You’d understand if she wanted to grouse about the high cost of fame, but instead Wildcard uses her public persona advantageously, flipping her storied track record into a statement of dogged perseverance and fire-forged optimism. It’s an instant classic for so many reasons: For how it plays with meta-narrative, for its great jokes, for being the best-sounding and most appealingly-textured Miranda album yet, but more than anything because she is self-evidently the greatest voice in country music, and she’s never sounded better. 

  1. there is no Other | Rhiannon Giddens
    thereisnoother

A luminous take on “world” music? An earthy version of a “standards” repertoire? A borderless companion piece to the landmark Allen Toussaint/Joe Henry collaborations? Gidden’s third and finest record under her own name is all of that, plus a mesmerizing act of compatibility with multi-instrumentalist Franseco Turrisi. But mostly, it’s a celebration of some of our best conduits for connection: A shared love of musical instruments; songs that transcend culture; the grain of the human voice; a commitment to radical neighborliness in all its forms.

  1. Lover | Taylor Swift
    lover

Probably not controversial: Taylor Swift is one of the four or five more consequential pop musicians of the past decade. Highly controversial: Lover is her most assured and rewarding album, pulling together threads from her country roots and her imperial era into a record bursting at the seams with energy and imagination. Following the defensiveness of reputation, its most noteworthy attributes might be its bright hues and its open-hearted, generous outlook. It is also a showcase for Swift the singer, delighting in different voices and styles. Would be an Album of the Year contender if only for the churning anguish in “Cruel Summer,” the romantic ambiance of “Lover,” or “False God” and its argument for earthly love as a spiritual discipline. But the best song is “Paper Rings,” the year’s most potent burst of pure joy.

  1. LEGACY! LEGACY! | Jamila Woods
    legacy legacy

“My ancestors watch me,” confides Jamila Woods on her sleek and purposeful second album. Ancestry is the guiding principle in these songs, and Woods apprehends it not as something confined to a history book or a genetics test so much as an animating force that dwells inside her; each song summons the spirit of a luminary influence, whether Eartha Kitt or Muddy Waters or Octavia Butler, and Woods taps into their lived experiences to navigate the complexities of righteous anger, generational trauma, and creative autonomy. Her writing is bruised and courageous, often at the same time, and reaches a cathartic apex in “BALDWIN,” in which she dares to love even her enemies and her persecutors. A font of wisdom, and every song’s a banger.

  1. Ghosteen | Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds
    ghosteen

You won’t hear Nick Cave sing the words dead or death anywhere in Ghosteen, the first album he wrote following the tragic death of his teenage son. But you may notice just how frequently he uses the word love, a clue to what these wrenching reflections are all about: Bonds that outlast physical frames, affections that reach past the grave. Ghosteen is quiet, reflective, meditative in its pacing, and largely drumless; it’s haunted by images of a suffering Christ, the Jesus of the disinherited. And yet it’s never the downer you might expect it to be: In his grief, Cave connects to a deep reservoir of empathy, and much of Ghosteen is concerned with how the experience of loss binds us together. All of this is expressed through sharp-cut songwriting jewels, by turns impressionistic, surreal, confessional, and allegorical. 

  1. The Gospel According to Water | Joe Henry
    the gospel according to water review

“Come the turn of story, come the moving floor,” goes one song from the 15th Joe Henry album, the first released after a personal health crisis that pulled the rug out from under him. It’s not the only song on The Gospel According to Water to be set against uncertain terrain; while it’s reductive to call this an album about mortality, it’s true enough to say that it’s an album uniquely concerned with the question of how any of us are to carry on in a world where things fall apart, moth and rust destroy, and big shoes drop all the time. The answer posited here is one of radical acceptance: The Gospel According to Water surrenders solid ground and instead aligns itself to the experiences of loss and uncertainty that we all share. It is a masterpiece of poetry: Henry is virtually unmatched at writing songs that scan as stand-alone verse, and this is the full flourishing and refinement of his lyrical gift. And, it is his most melodically robust album; half of these songs sound like they ought to be standards, the other half ancient folk songs. Altogether, it is a wise and consoling friend; a balm for anyone who’s ever felt their footing falter.

Memory Tells the Truth: The preservation of Allison Moorer

allison moorer blood review

To hear Nick Cave tell it, forgiveness is an act of self-preservation, if nothing else. “Forgiveness can prevent us from becoming the living definition of the injury that has been inflicted upon us – from being consumed by anger, pain, resentment and bitterness,” writes Cave in a recent Red Hand Files epistle. He goes on to call it “an act of self-love where the malignancy you have endured can become the motivating force that helps enlarge the capacity of the heart.” But how to forgive someone who’s violated you irrevocably, sinning against you in a way that seems both unknowable and unpardonable? Who would even try? Perhaps it’s sheer lunacy. Perhaps it’s necessary for survival. No reason it can’t be both.

Cave’s forgiveness homily provides a helpful framework for hearing Blood, a new album from Allison Moorer. It is her 11th album overall, but the first to document a childhood trauma that could justifiably be considered unforgivable. The album, along with a memoir of the same name, tells the story of Moorer’s father killing her mother and then himself, leaving Moorer and her sister Shelby Lynne huddled fearfully in their bedroom. Whether Blood amounts to an act of forgiveness is Moorer’s business, but it is certainly a generous act of witness-bearing. Here she shares the tale she’s long resisted calling to light, reading the facts of the matter into the public record; she is candid about the traumas she’s endured, and her own winding road to healing. She honors the humanity of everyone involved, and she narrates her story with clarity and compassion. The songs, nine out of 10 written by Moorer, are measured and purposeful, sounding less like an airing of grievances than an act of self-rescue. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, Moorer writes and sings as if the life she saves may be her own.

It’s a backstory so harrowing, you can understand why Moorer has been hesitant to share it. She gave a careful, forensic accounting of the dreadful day in “Cold Cold Earth,” relegated to “hidden song” status on 2000’s The Hardest Part, but otherwise the Blood saga represents her first public reckoning with the formative tragedy. She has carried this story for most of her life, and one imagines she’s gone over it time and time again in her head, calibrating just how and when she wanted to make it known. It is unsurprising, then, that the songs on Blood unfold with deliberate narrative precision: “Bad Weather” sets the scene with a swirl of dark clouds and grim omens, then a re-recording of “Cold Cold Earth” recounts the awful day beat-by-beat, with all the plainspoken austerity of an Appalachian murder ballad; Moorer uses the black-and-white framing of the acoustic setting in much the same way that the Coen Brothers’ Fargo uses fresh driven snow, a stark backdrop to offset deep crimson stains. The rest of the songs take stock of the damage done, both in the immediate aftermath and over the long run. It is a patient, considered telling of Moorer’s story, one that neither glosses over nor lingers too long over the grisly details: She says what needs to be said, then moves on.

Her meticulous narration is buoyed by arrangements that are subtly cinematic without ever being ostentatious. Working with producer Kenny Greenberg (who also helmed 2015’s outstanding Down to Believing), Moorer matches each song to earthy country/roots flourishes that highlight their emotional core. “The Rock and the Hill,” a lean times lamentation, considers how hardscrabble life became in the aftermath of disruptive loss; it’s set to the most cantankerous, hard-hitting rock and roll Moorer has ever recorded, an unmannerly howl of drums and guitars. Contrast it with “Nightlight,” which consoles itself with the fire-forged bonds of sisterly devotion, and is flecked with warm, comforting brass. “Heal” closes the album on a note of gospel perseverance, its resonant piano both pleading and indomitable.

The way Moorer tells her story makes childhood trauma an animating event, but not necessarily a definitive one; much of Blood is concerned with how she must carry the baggage of violence without allowing it to define or circumscribe her. In “The Ties That Bind,” the album’s bruised centerpiece, the singer admits that her father’s actions left her thinking she was “wounded” and “unworthy” for too long; she confesses that her family history is too great a burden to bear (“I’ve been dragging your legacy/ and the weight has just about taken me down”). That song is followed by the explosive catharsis of “All I Wanted (Thanks Anyway),” a revelation of clarity where Moorer disentangles herself from all the twisted storylines in her head: “My body bears your bruise/ Your spirit’s on my tongue/ But my memory tells the truth/ All I wanted was your love.” In these songs, she lays her weapons down; she does what Nick Cave suggests we must, exhuming grievance rather than allowing is to fester and consume her.

Of course Moorer’s father casts a shadow over the album, and on two songs he assumes center stage. “Cold Cold Earth” narrates his troubled mind dispassionately; it neither exonerates nor condemns, instead weighing the severity of his sin against the extremity of his sickness (“drunk with grief and loneliness, he wasn’t thinking straight”). The album’s only song that Moorer didn’t write is “I’m the One to Blame,” based on a tattered page her father left behind, later to be completed by Lynne. Moorer voices its doleful confession with such intimacy, you can hear the guitar creak and the floorboards groan as she plays it. Its inclusion here may or may not qualify as forgiveness. It surely qualifies as courage.

Beauty in a Breakdown: Kalie Shorr has too much to say

kalie shorr open book review

Kalie Shorr, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter from Portland, Maine, starts her first full-length album with something pitched halfway between a promise and a warning. “Don’t go asking questions that you don’t want answers to/ I’ve got too much to say, and I’ll tell it all to you,” she pledges, and it won’t take long for you to realize just how much she means it. She wrote the songs on Open Book— its very title a commitment to transparency— amidst the ruins of what she calls “the worst year,” one marked by romantic collapse, mental health struggles, and the sudden death of her sister. That’s an awful lot of hardship and tragedy packed into a small time frame, and the 13 songs on Open Book often sound like they’ve exploded from a pressure cooker; Shorr pulls no punches and spares no detail, documenting her year from hell with bracing candor, defiant jokes, narrative perspicuity, and persuasive psychoanalysis. “I don’t really like dating assholes/ But I do it ‘cause I have a weird relationship with my dad,” she admits in the opening couplet of “Gatsby,” fast-talking a few extra syllables into her meter, as if the song can barely contain the wild honesty of her lived experience. Over and over, Open Book lays it all on the table; it bursts at the seams. It sounds like nothing so much as the work of a gifted singer/songwriter who’s long had much to say, and can’t hold it in any longer.

Shorr is a country singer, though she’s never any more or less attached to genre tradition than she needs to be. Her version of roots music extends back no further than to the supercharged, chart-topping country of the 1990s, and Open Book is generously adorned with arena-filling drums, red-hot guitar licks, doleful pedal steel, and sawing fiddles. But if you want to triangulate her sound, you only have to go back as far as the previous generation’s great women of country: Shorr invites passing comparison to early Taylor Swift (for her diaristic clarity), Kacey Musgraves (for her attention to detail and her careful rendering of small-town life), perhaps even Miranda Lambert (for how she pivots so easily from hell-raising to introspection). But the active ingredient in her songwriting is an abiding love for cheap-sounding pop-punk and mopey emo, idioms that aren’t broadly fashionable but offer her a language for direct emotional appeal. The most irrepressible moments on Open Book come when she allows these reference points to mix and mingle. “The World Keeps Spinning,” a song for her sister, has weepy steel guitar and a bruised, blood-letting chorus. The perfectly-titled “Angry Butterfly,” where she announces herself “a ballerina wearing combat boots,” writhes and seethes in grungy dissonance, but it’s got gossamer banjo latticed on top.

You never feel like these songs are very far removed from personal experience, but that’s not to say they’re unvarnished journal entries, either. Shorr tempers her eagerness to share with immaculate songwriting formalism, and several of these songs come with the kind of pitch-perfect premises that your average country song-slinger would trade his best pickup truck and a full case of domestic beer for. Listen to “Messy,” about two neat-freaks who look down their noses at other couples who allow any imperfection or discord to show; the twist, of course, is that their immaculate surfaces hide an emotional shit show. “Thank God You’re a Man,” a swaggering song of seduction, picks up where Ariana Grande’s “God is a Woman” left off; it brims with the confidence of a woman who knows she can pull a few hallelujahs out of even the most resolute nonbeliever. Best of all is the righteously petulant breakup song “F U Forever,” a carbonated cocktail of honky-tonk twang and mall-rat thrash. It includes a few lyrics that any good psychotherapist would surely categorize as breakthroughs (“I’m just a mirror reflecting/ and you’re just an asshole projecting”), but the smartest thing about it is how Shorr saves her one epic profanity for an uproarious punchline.

Indeed, her songs are witheringly funny, except when they aren’t. Some of Open Book’s richest turns of phrase are mirthlessly clever, like a couplet from “The World Keeps Spinning” that perfectly captures the solitude of grief in a world of indifference: “I drove by a wedding on the way to your funeral/ I bet the bride was happy that the weather was beautiful.” The pounding “Lullaby,” written in the wake of a breakup, moves from consuming sadness to self-determination in the span of a single chorus (“I’m singing one last lullaby and I’m/ putting this to bed.”) Part of what makes these songs so compelling is the believability of Shorr’s self-appraisal; she plays some of her therapist’s-couch asides for laughs (“looks like my abandonment issues got the best of me again”), but many a truth is spoken in jest, and Shorr is unsparing in her assessment of how her year of tribulation turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Listen to the old-timey soft-shoe gait and and casual one-liners in “Gatsby,” a song about turning to self-destruction as a way to avoid facing down the demons within; Shorr delivers bleak lyrics from behind a shit-eating grin, which is the whole point. There’s no such performative zeal in “Escape,” which quietly offers the album’s most sobering turn; here Shorr chronicles various drugs of choice used to “sweeten up the lows” before admitting that her own defense mechanism is running away. It’s a harsh confession that belies the album’s confrontational spirit. Surely it’s no accident that Open Book ends with an antagonistic rager; in “Angry Butterfly,” Shorr’s crawled back from hell with a resolve forged in fire, ready to say her piece and possibly bust some skulls. Its tantalizing promise is that, for as much as she says on this album, she’s really just clearing her throat.

The Heart Off Guard: Joe Henry holds on to his hat

the gospel according to water review

Joe Henry provides us with countless invaluable images across his new album, The Gospel According to Water. One of the most poignant is a scene from the title song, where the narrator sits at his windowsill and watches a procession of people parade by; each keeps their hat clutched tightly in hand, guarding against the fitful squall they know must come sooner or later. Henry takes it all in from behind a pane of glass, and sings with the quiet authority of a man who knows what it’s like to have the hat blown off his head. The Gospel According to Water is the 15th Joe Henry album, expanding a rich catalog of songs that reckon with blustery weather by all its various names— cruel fate, ravenous time, fickle providence, the slipstream of mystery. It is also the first Joe Henry album to arrive following a blindsiding cancer diagnosis late last year, each of these 13 songs written in the aftermath of the big shoe’s drop. A cruder man might say that shit’s gotten real, but with Henry there is always a deep reserve of eloquence. “Shadows lead us onward/ the darkness still at play,” he offers in a song called “Mule.” He’s been writing for years about how the dark itself proves a guiding light, how struggle is the mustard seed from which hope springs— and now he’s left with no choice but to believe it. Perhaps it is right to say that these new songs are similar in kind but different in clarity to the songs that came before them; that they hover over familiar concerns but exert a new kind of gravity. They’re songs forged in the refiner’s fire. They’re the sound of rubber meeting the road.

Refinement is a good way to think of this album, though that’s more a matter of happenstance than intention. The entirety of The Gospel According to Water was recorded quick-and-dirty in just two days’ time, initially meant to be a data dump for Henry’s publisher. It wasn’t until he listened back that Henry realized the lucidity with which these recordings speak, the lack of any need for additional polish. They are released here more or less as-is, though anyone expecting the jagged edges of, say, Springsteen’s Nebraska will want to check their assumptions at the door: These songs are beautiful and deep, autumnal in their tone and unhurried in their pace, and they all sound crisp, clean, and complete. The biggest tell to the serendipitous nature of these sessions is the absence of drummer Jay Bellerose, long a fixture of the Joe Henry players; you won’t hear any of his rolling thunder here, but you will hear fleet-fingered acoustic guitar lines from Henry and from John Smith; sparkling piano work from Patrick Warren; understated melodies from reed man Levon Henry, whose smoky sax and clarinet wind through a handful of songs. On two selections, you’ll hear harmonies from the unassailable Birds of Chicago, summoning rapturous soul. There is some of the same loose, brambly spirit that characterized Henry’s previous record, 2017’s feral Thrum, but this one is decidedly less prickly and more serene; the kind of quiet that commands active attention and full engagement.

Ever since Reverie, Henry’s songwriting has moved further from folk traditions and closer to poetic ones, meaning his lyrics aren’t necessarily linear so much as they are impressionistic. The Gospel According to Water feels like a purification of that approach; indeed, there may be no songwriter currently working whose lyrics work as well as standalone poetry (maybe Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission), and Gospel is the rare album that may be best experienced by reading along with the words, where you can see them arranged on the page in neat stanzas. Consider the tidy couplets in “Green of the Afternoon,” which the novelist Colum McCann rightly situates in the mystic lineage of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

I mean to sing of love that goes uncured–
You come to me and silence every word;
You come to me and silence every word…
But what goes unspoken may not go unheard

Henry understands the formal power in such tight, carefully structured writing, which might explain his ongoing allegiance to standards. At least since Scar he’s written songs that sound like tattered pages from the Great American Songbook, and The Gospel According to Water includes some of his most desolate, his most melodically robust. “Famine Walk,” the spindly album opener, sounds like a wee small hours confession from some alternate-universe Frank Sinatra, laid low by grievous loss, hollowed out by a few too many things that didn’t go his way. The sighing “Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2,” with a wistful moan from Levon, could pass as nightclub fodder from the world of Jim Jarmush’s zombie movie (“the dead from here, don’t stay dead long”). But the album’s most distinctive feat of songwriting is “Orson Welles,” a character sketch that belongs in the category with Henry’s previous songs to Richard Pryor and Charlie Parker. This form is associated with Henry in the same way that blue-collar malaise is associated with Springsteen, sexy Bible stories with Leonard Cohen, triple-decker puns with Elvis Costello; his song for Welles isn’t Wikipedia-style recitation but a tender, first-person reckoning with a man who ascended too high and too quickly, and now must make peace with inevitable decline (“if you provide the terms of my surrender, I’ll provide the war”).

There is enormous temptation to consider the album solely in light of its backstory, to hear it as a “brush with mortality” album along the lines of the latter-day Johnny Cash recordings, perhaps Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. But while the songs here are informed by recent trials, they resist any effort to hear them as songs about cancer, nor even songs about death. The larger concern is living in uncertainty, locating a personal center of gravity in a world where there’s never firm footing to be found; following the shadows as they point toward the light. “How is it we’ve held out through all of these rumbling years/ that rush like the wind from our sails in a tumble of tears?” Henry asks in “The Book of Common Prayer,” and it’s a useful framing question for the songs that surround it. For his part, the narrator in “General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children” ascribes titles to the heavenly bodies that spin ever beyond his reach, telling himself he’s imposed order on a vastness untroubled by the vanity of his decrees. In “Bloom,” the singer imagines time as a couple of freight trains, rumbling past him in either direction; he’s left standing at the station, capturing a moment’s clarity in a tumble of romantic verse.

Several songs in Henry’s Gospel employ the language of religious pilgrimage and devotion, though it’s always with a tacit rejection of anything overly dogmatic. “Not all are saved, not all of us care to be,” he admits in “Green of the Afternoon,” dismissing the idea that peace is found in the grip of assurance, asserting instead a kind of contentment found in the quest itself, a surrender to impermanence and uncertainty. Another white flag is unfurled in “Choir Boy,” the gnarled and off-kilter closing song, which includes the closest thing this album offers to prescriptive advice: “Raise your hands above your head and hold the air/ kick your keys in front of you into grass and leave them there/ surrender everything back to the ground.” Sometimes, surrender isn’t entirely optional. The man in “Famine Walk” speaks to “the heart off guard but ever opened wide,” sounding as though he’s been robbed of anything to cling to save his own trembling vulnerability. (“You’ve gotta get taken for everything to have anything to give,” an Over the Rhine song counsels.)

The true Gospel religion is ratified in “The Book of Common Prayer,” where all of us are bound together in acknowledgement of “love and the breach it repairs.” With any luck, a copy of this record will find its way into the hands of Nick Cave, who, following the tragic death of his teenage son, spoke about loss as a catalyst for radical openness, empathy, and zeal for human connection. Like Cave’s Ghosteen, Henry’s album reckons with private catastrophes but refuses isolation; its woundedness points toward the grace and understanding we owe one another, and to how we find our bearings not in relation to the shifting ground but to the neighbors reeling and scrambling alongside us. “In Time for Tomorrow,” ravishing pastoral folk, sounds like a word of resolve from two lovers whose intention is to put their season of bereavement behind, no matter what circumstance dictates. And “The Fact of Love,” so big and dramatic one’s tempted to call it a power ballad, casts its eye to an uncertain horizon before doubling down on love’s invitation here and now. “The hour now is hanging free/ and the stars are still above our heads,” sings Henry. How’s that for good news?

One Heart Goin’ Both Directions: Miranda Lambert considers contentment

wildcard

“I’ve got a track record,” admits Miranda Lambert on her seventh solo album, as if we don’t already know it; as if we haven’t seen the supermarket tabloids, or carefully considered her unassailable catalog of songs about kerosene dreams and mama’s broken hearts; about loving and leaving, often in a shower of gunpowder and lead. Wildcard references the darkest implications of those songs occasionally, obliquely, noncommittally; in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” Lambert won’t be bothered to dirty her hands bumping off a cheatin’ fool, though you could perhaps talk her into hiring someone to make it all look like an accident. The restlessness that runs through Lambert’s songbook is nevertheless crucial subtext here, often out of sight but seldom out of mind: This is an album that uses personal history and public mythology as context for hard-won serenity and joy. It turns admissions of personal weakness into declarations of strength; it lends wisdom to songwriting tropes that have occasionally teetered close to youthful caricature. For all the justifiable talk about how Wildcard is distinct in Lambert’s catalog— how it’s her party record, her rock and roll record, her New York record— its power is felt most fully when you know the backstory.

This fresh chapter does bring some shake-ups, notably in the producer’s chair; until now all of Lambert’s albums, including the three with Pistol Annies, have been helmed by Frank Liddell. For this one she enlisted Jay Joyce (Brothers Osborne, Ashley McBryde, Eric Church), who swaps lived-in earthiness for a glistening sheen. Wildcard revels in surface-level pleasures; “Mess with My Head,” tightly-wound pop perfection, delivers a high that’s every bit as rapturous and ephemeral as the one-night-stand that it documents. The album sounds as loose and as colorful as any Lambert has made: The guitars are gnarly and loud, the drums have plenty of snap. Lambert’s pop songs are confectionary delicacies; “Track Record” rides a featherweight New Wave synth, while “Settling Down” surrenders its anxieties to chiming guitars and swirling keyboards. Elsewhere, Joyce dresses up the rootsier material with stylized remove; “Holy Water” brings in a gospel choir and swamp-rock sleaze, and “Way Too Pretty for Prison” feels as sturdy as a classic R&B ballad, as trashy as a garage rock knockoff. In “Locomotive,” harmonica wails over an off-the-rails groove, and the singer wails even louder; it’s raucous country-blues filtered through the New York Dolls’ scruff. Lambert has always been equal-parts country traditionalist and country disruptor, and Wildcard cleverly calls back to some of the pioneers whose disruptions in the 1980s and 1990s are almost taken for granted today; you might think of the agitated rock and roll attitude of Steve Earle circa Guitar Town, but more than anything Wildcard nods to the kineticism and elasticity of King’s Record Shop, the landmark album from Rosanne Cash— a trailblazer whose influence looms large over Lambert and so many of her peers.

Lambert and Joyce keep the feel so light and breezy, you might almost overlook the high level of craft, evident even when Lambert indulges in frivolities (all of them welcome following the magnificent but demanding ballast of 2016’s The Weight of These Wings, still her deepest album). “It All Comes Out in the Wash” hawks detergent and promises, no matter what you’re going through, that this too shall pass; it’s proud down-home cornpone but savvier than it seems, and Lambert reads its hokey vernacular as holy writ, wringing countless delights from her deep Texas drawl. “Tequila Does,” Wildcard’s purest honky tonk, sounds at first like it may collapse under its heavy-handed bordertown rhymes (“with a blonde senorita/ and a tall margarita”), but it reveals itself to be a smart piece of writing with a timeless premise: Dudes generally don’t live up to their lofty promises, but booze is pretty reliable. It’s one of the happiest songs you’ll ever hear about going home from the bar all by your lonesome. And what about “White Trash,” which opens the album amid a flurry of digitally-processed banjo notes? Maybe Lambert’s thumbing her nose at the purists, or maybe she just feels like country music is meant to be a gas.

Of course there’s another big shake-up in Lambert’s life, and that’s Brendan McLoughlin, the New York City cop Lambert met and married in the year spanning Interstate Gospel and Wildcard. Perhaps newlywed bliss is one explanation for the album’s cheerful countenance, but Lambert seems to intuit something that Chance the Rapper learned the hard way: Writing persuasively about contentment is easier said than done. To that end, Wildcard isn’t as carefree as it sounds. In “How Dare You Love,” one of a couple of Ashley Monroe co-writes, Lambert describes romance as something that happened to her when she was looking the other way, its capriciousness exciting but maybe a little disconcerting. (Can anything that gives also take away?) “Settling Down” is a tug of war between her inbuilt wanderlust and her aspirations for hearth and home; she’s “one heart goin’ both directions,” with “one love and a couple of questions,” and the song abides tension rather than offering a conclusion. Wildcard wraps up with the neon squalor of “Dark Bars,” where Lambert is sober and not especially sad but still drawn to the dingy ambiance of heartache and desperation. What does it say about her that she concludes her most unsettled albums with songs of healing, and her most bucolic one with a song of unease? On Miranda Lambert albums, there are no uncomplicated emotions.

Lambert’s history makes both her frivolities and her complexities feel weightier. Indeed, the most rewarding way to experience Wildcard is to imagine that Lambert’s still playing the same restless, sometimes reckless characters she’s inhabited since her debut, deepened by wisdom and experience. She feints in that direction in “Way Too Pretty for Prison,” where Lambert and Maren Morris realize they’ve got better things to do than play Thelma and Louise, a prospect that Lambert and Carrie Underwood were all too happy to entertain just five short years ago. And of course there’s “Track Record,” which picks up a heartbreak thread running through “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (where she was vengeful and violent), “Love Letters” (where she was rueful), and “Things That Break” (where she realized just how easily she makes a mess of every good thing that comes her way). “Track Record” doesn’t erase or downplay that history, but it does view it through a lens of grace and understanding; for what may be the first time, Lambert goes easy on herself. “Can’t help it, I’m in love with love,” she admits, a hungry heart whose biggest fault is the intensity of her devotion. She makes a similar case for herself in the folksy “Bluebird,” where her loves and losses are seen in the broader context of her own flinty resilience. That’s the point of “Locomotive,” too: “I don’t run out of steam,” she boasts, and what these songs amount to is a total recontextualization of the heartache narrative she’s been writing since Kerosene, one she sees clearer than ever as a tale of hard knocks, survival, and maturation.  “I know a thing or two about broken hearts,” she sings in “Dark Bars.” Maybe that’s why she ended this album on a relative downer: For as frisky and innocent as these songs may sound, every one of them is a song of experience. 

A Dog for the End of Days: Elbow counts the cost

giants

“For the history of every individual, of every social order, indeed of the whole world, does not describe an ever-widening, more and more wonderful arc, but rather follows a course which, once the meridian is reached, leads without fail down into the dark.” – W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn

You only have to listen to a few seconds of Giants of All Sizes, the eighth and most unsettled Elbow album, before the Son of God makes an appearance. He’s here not as the object of worship but the casualty of apostasy; “I don’t love Jesus anymore,” growls singer Guy Garvey, his voice betraying nary a trace of lingering faith or affection. His is a deconversion story born of sorrow; belief battered and buffeted and gradually whittled down to raw fatigue. It’s a fitting opening confession for an album besieged by trial— by death, crumbing relationships, collapsing empires, governmental dysfunction. “You’ve been all over, and it’s been all over you,” Bono once observed, and he might as well have been writing a review of this Elbow record; it sounds like the work of men who’ve been through the wringer, whose very bones now shudder in weariness; a bruised admission of surrendered ideals and depleted optimism. “I was born with a trust that didn’t survive,” Garvey sings at one point, an admission of innocence lost. Elsewhere, he asks: “How d’you keep your eyes ablaze/ in these faith-free, hope-free, charity-free days?” It’s not a rhetorical question. Elbow never offers an answer. 

Take all of this as evidence of what a special band Elbow is, and always has been. It is difficult to imagine an album quite as candid, doleful, or meditative as this coming from the band’s forefathers, nor their contemporaries. Bono’s troupe has doubled down on their inclinations to be all things to all people, to offer anthems of revolutionary fervor and messianic intent; they require of themselves a brave public face, and you’d have to go back decades for any real acknowledgment of the toll it’s taken. It is impossible to imagine U2 ever making an album about how tired they are. Radiohead is better at acknowledging malaise, to the point of almost fetishizing it, but their music revels in the alien whereas Elbow is unerringly terrestrial, neighborly, friendly. Coldplay has a gift for euphoria, which they conjure to fill stadiums or light up the dance floor, but Elbow alone wields majesty with humility, patience, and restraint; the grandeur of Giants of All Sizes is designed not for maximum populism but for quiet moments of solace and introspection. For an antecedent, look not to Elbow’s fellow rock and rollers, but to Over the Rhine’s Love and Revelation. Nick Cave’s Ghosteen. Albums that abide grief without trying to revolve it.

They are a rock band like no other, so perhaps it comes as no surprise that, on Giants of All Sizes, they never really rock in any conventional sense at all. It’s an album that favors refined tempos and leisurely sprawl,which is not to say that it resists noise or abrasion: “White Noise White Heat” cranks up the guitars with lurching, mechanical riffs, while “Empires” bristles with an itchy, restless energy, as though Garvey’s anxieties have spread across his body like an outbreak of hives. Elbow albums have always gestured toward their love of prog rock, and here they get good and crunchy on the shape-shifting opener “Dexter & Sinister,” a snake that sheds its skin again and again, ultimately revealing a soaring vocal hook from Jesca Hoop. “The Delayed 3:15” is a study in permutation and build, winding its way from a slinky clarinet solo into a cathartic swell of strings. More typical of the album’s warm, genial ambiance is “Seven Veils,” wispy and unforced, a swirl of ethereal keyboards that ratifies Elbow’s easeful way with melody. “Doldrums” stutters and sways, and Garvey leans into its tipsy cadence with a jumble of fast-talking bravado. “Weightless,” a particularly diaphanous take on the band’s rafter-raising balladry, lives up to its title.

Garvey’s songwriting documents different forms of heavy-heartedness, often in compact, impressionistic stanzas. “Weightless” celebrates his new son but also eulogizes his father, whose loss looms large over these nine bereaved confessions, with a tight 25-word verse that’s sung just twice (“He was weightless in my arms,” Garvey remembers, a striking note of fragility). “The Delayed 3:15” is only slightly more expansive, taking two short verses to paint a picture of working class enervation so subtle, you can almost miss its surprise ending in suicide-by-train (“you’re just the man whose blues/ stopped his heart beneath our shoes”). “White Noise White Heat,” about London’s Grenfall Tower tragedy, quakes in impotent rage. “Seven Veils” is ravishingly romantic, Garvey singing in his most intimate croon, yet it’s the soundtrack not to a tender embrace but a final goodbye. So much of Giants of All Sizes is concerned with beautiful and sovereign things brought to ruin. “Baby, empires crumble all the time/ pay it no mind/ you just happened to witness mine,” one song goes; it’s a line loaded with Brexit fatigue but could just as easily be about bodies brought low by time and experience; good fortune plundered by entropy and inevitability. 

Maybe that sounds like a dispiriting turn for a band who told us, just one album back, that “it’s all gonna be magnificent.” But the point of Giants of All Sizes is not to revel in gloom so much as to bear a truthful witness. Garvey’s lyrics, so sensitive and terse, don’t linger or wallow in one place for long. What makes a bigger impression is the general sense of burnout. This is an album that counts the cost that comes with clinging to optimism in perilous days; it abides lost faith and dashed hopes on behalf of all who feel beleaguered, and it does so with integrity. (A single dip into “love is the answer” or “everything’s gonna be ok” cliches would have made this entire record ring phony, and Elbow seems to have recognized it.) “How can a bland unremarkable typical Tuesday be Day of the Dead?” Garvey wonders in “Empires,” suggesting the mundanity of rot, the casualness with which evil eras rise up like lions to devour us. And in “Dexter & Sinister,” he insists that he’s “not a dog for the end of days.” But that’s really not his choice to make. None of us get to choose the times we inhabit, nor our proximity to decay and collapse. We are beset with darkness and asked to make the most of it. Giants of All Sizes finds a band long known for its positive vibes admitting that it’s grueling to be a keeper of the flame. It’s consolation for days when it feels like hope has been extinguished. 

Still on the Borderline: The haunting of Baby Rose

to myself

There are no clean getaways. Take it from soul singer Baby Rose, whose transfixing debut album, To Myself, documents relationships that have collapsed, but still exert their own inescapable gravity. Over and over, Rose pledges that she’s making a break, turning a corner, starting a new chapter; and over and over— in fits and starts, broken intentions and faltering relapses— she finds that it’s not so easy. “Maybe if I could just stop/ thinking of him I’ll be fine,” she speculates in “Borderline,” a conclusion that’s simple in theory but seemingly impossible in execution; like willing yourself not to think about a pink elephant. And in “Mortal,” a junkie’s confession set to a punishingly slow beat, she admits that she’ll “pick the pieces up then come running back every time,” all too ready to revisit the scene of her trauma. These are songs that posit love as a kind of ghost story, a haunting that outlasts physical embrace. In “Artifacts,” Rose is a lovestruck amnesiac, sifting through the ruins and relics of a failed relationship, trying to piece together how it all went wrong and allowing herself the hope that next time will be different. Perhaps the entire album is a set of artifacts; scattered memories reassembled into a dazed testimony of love’s capricious grip.

There’s another sense in which To Myself feels like a haunting: Shrouded in mossy atmospherics and submerged in deep shadow, the album is as murky and unsettled as a midnight seance, with Rose summoning to the table the rattling spirits of all the music that raised her— the church songs she grew up singing, the jazz and funk and hip-hop records she inherited from her parents. The production, mostly from Tim Maxley, is organic but not necessarily warm, earthy but also uneasy. It’s an analog sound built from humming keyboards, clattering percussion, and pulsing bass, its persistent dankness unifying all the ghosts Rose has conjured. Indeed, To Myself is a work of seamless synthesis, musical reference points channeled into something holistic and idiosyncratic: Just listen to the stalking R&B banger “Ragrets,” as crisp and propulsive as an Amy Winehouse song, as gnarled and wrinkly as a D’Angelo jam. “Artifacts” is even nastier, a racket of clamorous cymbals, multi-tracked voices, and speaker-rattling bass; George Clinton’s sludgy funk by way of Miles Davis’ 70s-era din. Far from being academic excursions into classicist song structures, these tracks are evocative and fully-embodied; listen again to “Mortal,” a slow-burning blues that dramatizes the agony of desire with bruising physicality. Or, to its tonal opposite, “In Your Arms,” which rides a trip-hop beat and gauzy synths into a weightless chorus, a dream of desire. Rose has obviously metabolized a lot of rap records (among her influences she cites Outkast and other southern eccentrics; she’s also worked with J Cole), and you can hear it in the easeful way she slips into clipped, percussive cadences: “When we were together/ I was like spouse/ right beside you/ playing house.” Her voice encompasses an entire vocabulary of rasps and moans, desirous coos and punchdrunk slurs; the quasi-title track “All To Myself” feels like the album’s beating heart precisely because it puts her weathered instrument at the center, accompanied by little more than piano and church organ.

Rose wrote the material on To Myself in the aftermath of a tumultuous breakup, one she says still holds her in its orbit; these 10 songs suggest someone who remains too deep in the shit to see the larger narrative, so instead she offers fragmented memories, conflicting emotions, shards of memoir and tatters of resolve. The album plays like an insomniac’s free-associative tailspin, veering sharply between anger and sorrow, an iron will to move forward and weak-kneed entreaties to go back to the way things here. “I’ll make it right until it all goes wrong,” she pledges on “Sold Out,” the spooky album opener; you can hear that same tension throughout the record, the push and pull between healthy intentions and inevitable self-destruction. Just because you’re through with love, these songs suggest, that doesn’t mean love’s through with you. It’s one of the oldest stories there is, but it’s also Baby Rose’s story. To Myself is a moody and masterful telling.