SMALL TOWN TALK
by Josh Hurst
Or: Brandy Clark goes for broke.
“No one you can name is just that one thing they have shown,” sang Joe Henry on Invisible Hour. There is complexity behind every cliché, a tangle of humanity lurking below every obvious label or identifying feature. There are no one trick ponies. The gift of Brandy Clark is how she writes songs that pivot on clichés—as so many great country songs do, hers use archetypes and traditions as their fulcrums and their hinges—but carve out space within them for real people to inhabit. Her songs are about characters you know, and they suggest that the most obvious thing about each character is seldom the most interesting. And so, on Big Day in a Small Town, there is a song about a teenage beauty queen now entering middle age—but really, it’s a song about how things fall apart, and about how youth fails in its grasping of time. There is a song about a philanderer and a womanizer, but really it’s a song about karma, and about how the sins of the father come back around again. And there’s a song about the stereotypical “Girl Next Door”—complete with a nod to Marcia Brady—but it’s really a song about the inherent beauty in human fracture; about leaning into our imperfections rather than trying to fix them.
Clark is a masterful songwriter whose gift is for capturing believable human behavior with economy and wit; many of today’s hot Nashville writers lean on product placement and name dropping in order to evoke what life is like in the fly-over states, while their alt-country peers can sometimes be too bent on “authenticity” to even crack a joke. Clark doesn’t need to reference domestic beers to make her scenes life-like, though she does get in a well-earned PBR mention here, and even a song called “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin’” is darkly funny in the same way that Randy Newman’s songs can be funny: At first there is a shock at the narrator’s casual affirmation of her brokenness, then an uncomfortable laugh of recognition as we realize how unshocking it really is. Speaking of Newman, his own 12 Songs is a worthy precedent to Clark’s debut, 12 Stories—and not just because of the similar titles. Both records play out like short story collections, each song a miracle of brevity, a character study without anything excessive or off-point.
If 12 Stories was a short story collection—its presentation mostly stark and austere, the cheeky sound effects on “Stripes” notwithstanding; a songwriter’s showcase through and through—then Big Day is its big-budget, Technicolor film treatment, and proof that Clark can make it not just as a writer’s writer (for indeed, she has penned big hits for folks like Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow) but as a record-maker in her own right. Produced by Jay Joyce, who killed it on Eric Church’s great Mr. Misunderstood, Big Day makes Clark’s songs sound like the radio hits they’ve always deserved to be, and in that way the record could be compared to Over the Rhine’s Films for Radio or Richard Thompson’s Rumour and Sigh—records that got bigger and brighter and more polished without ever sounding like sellouts, accentuating rather than burying what always made the artist special. Big Day in a Small Town gives each song a splash of color, and draws from a palette that includes vibrant percussion, gurgling electronics, all manner of plucked strings, multi-tracked vocal effects, and the occasional weepy pedal steel when things get especially sad. The balance is striking: This works equally well as a singer/songwriter record and as pure pop, where even the transitions between songs (like “Soap Opera” dissolving into a wash of shakers and maracas as “Girl Next Door” enters) help maintain the album’s interest and momentum.
Speaking of Thompson, his own “Let it Blow” is a touchstone for this record’s conceit: What may seem objectively like a triviality or a mundane interaction is in fact high drama to the people involved, as we all fancy ourselves the leading actors in the stories of our lives. (“Life’s little traumas and courtroom dramas/ Remind me that I’m glad I’m alive,” Thompson offers.) Clark uses a similar device to frame her stories of beauty queens, cheaters, and lovers in hard times; of folks flat-broke, regretful, strung out on love. “Ain’t we all the stars/ Playing the leading part/ In our own soap opera,” she says to open the record, the opening strains gradually washing into place like the beginning of a sitcom theme song. The first verse on “Soap Opera” is about a hairdresser, the second about a bartender, both cast here as town psychiatrist and priest: They’re the ones who hear the confessions, and through their ears we hear the rest of these stories unfold. Clark compresses the hairdresser’s own story into a brilliant two-line exposition: “Sherry shampooed ‘til she got her own chair/ Now she’s playing shrink to every head of hair.” And that’s all it takes: We’re already in the thick of things; already immersed in the action.
The song’s counterpart is the title track, which takes its own cues from a Lambert cut, surprisingly not written by Clark—“Everybody Dies Famous in a Small Town.” The whole song is arranged from gossip and hearsay, off-hand references to big doings in a place where there are no secrets; where we’re all defined by the stories people tell about us, whether rightly or wrongly. Clark ultimately has it both ways here: The record’s big colors and dramatic production allow each character the dignity of made-for-Hollywood storytelling, even as Clark’s incisive lyrics remind us that there’s more to any story than the gossip and the small-town talk.
The one about how things fall apart is called “Homecoming Queen,” where teenage dreams congeal into middle-aged malaise. Clark is unparalleled in how she details specifically feminine insecurities, and here her protagonist is too weary even to rail against what she sees in the mirror: “28 shouldn’t look this old/ But the last ten years sure took their toll/ On the girl in the picture with the plastic crown/ The sequin dress wouldn’t fit her now.” Her problem isn’t that things have crumbled so much as they haven’t lived up to her big, bedazzled dreams; her marriage “ain’t so bad but it ain’t that good,” and she’s stuck clipping coupons in a town she always though would be her stepping stone to somewhere better. Life ain’t a picnic and it ain’t a parade, but how can youth understand the ravages of time? “When you’re 17/ You don’t know/ That you won’t always be/ Homecoming queen,” Clark offers; like Keith Urban on Fuse, she’s dealing with someone “far too young to know that summers end.”
The song is presented as a big ballad, all tenderness and sighs; the one about karma, on the other hand, is in some ways the most heavily produced thing here, nearly as big a swing as “Stripes” was on the last record. “Daughter” is a hillbilly two-step with steady bass, garage-rock organ flourishes, barbed-wire electric guitar, and even a bit of spritely banjo. Clark writes her own “Rosie Strike Back” here, but instead of bolting in the night her wronged woman lays plans for a bigger payoff down the road: “I hope you have a daughter and I hope that she’s a fox/ Daddy’s little girl just as sweet as she is hot/ She can’t help but love them boys/ Who love to love and leave them girls just like her father.” The narrator here isn’t just banking on the sins of the father coming back to haunt him; she’s begging for it, clinging to the closest thing to justice she can dream of. It’s a riot, but what makes it land is how Clark sings it straight; there’s not an ounce of goofy in the song.
“Girl Next Door” (aka the one about beauty in imperfection) is even more confrontational. Here a woman asks her lover what exactly he was expecting; if it was the perfect woman then brother, she ain’t it, and fuck him for suggesting it. She delivers the song’s brutal kiss-off in a clipped cadence, the song’s fleet, driving pop breaking into throbbing electronic percussion. It’s a big moment, catharsis and consonants: “So baby, if you want the girl next door/ Then go next door and go right now/ And don’t look back, don’t turn around/ And don’t call me when you get bored/ Yeah, if you want the girl next door/ Then go next door.” She knows he’ll never find what he’s looking for, not that it’s any of her concern; her self-possession turns the song into an anthem of empowerment, all the more resonant because she recognizes she’s a mess but sees the folly in thinking someone else could make her whole: “My heart and my head and my bed can get real twisted/ And you wouldn’t be the first to think you could go and fix it.”
A song called “Broke” is the closest the record gets to a novelty; it’s a litany of images reflecting backcountry poverty, all delivered with a smirk and a healthy dose of Dixie Chicken funk. It’s the record’s only song that never quite rises above its own conceit, but it’s still a hoot, and what saves its characters from being clichés is that the premise itself is so believable: “We dig our own ditches, we roll our own smokes/ And we’re secretly wishing that grandma would croak.” Even better is “Love Can Go to Hell,” another of her great country ballads where tenderness and intimacy are cracked open by a big, rousing chorus; the song is ushered in by brushed percussion, banjo, and acoustic guitar, its prettiness accentuating the pain in the love-wrecked lyric: “Love can go to hell/ In a broken heartbeat minute,” she sings, but the narrator’s sadness is bereft of bitterness: “I don’t blame you at all/ No, I don’t hate you at all/ It’s all love’s fault.” It’s affirmation of what Nick Lowe once sang, “Love’s got a lot to answer for.”
Clark writes with wicked humor and even satire, but her jokes are never cruel; she has too much affection for her characters, and too much empathy with their self-inflicted wounds. Big Day in a Small Town goes for broke on the big pop gestures but also takes the time for compassion; check “You Can Come Over,” about a woman who just doesn’t trust herself as far as her ex-lover is concerned. She knows he’s a wolf at the door, and will call it a win if she can keep him there instead of in her bed. There’s no need for much gloss on this one; piano, pedal steel, and a big, weepy chorus do the trick, and make it sound like the kind of tearjerking moment you could expect from most any major label country diva record in the 90s and early 2000s. But the tears are earned, just like all the bright colors that adorn this record. The first time around, Clark proved she could deliver a great set of songs; here she proves she can deliver a great feat of record-making. And if there was any justice, it’d be a blockbuster.
- Read “Plant a Seed,” my review of Southern Family, which features a great Brandy Clark song.
- Stream it on Apple Music.
- Stream it on Spotify.
- Buy it on Amazon.
- Ready Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s All Music review.
- Read Alfred Soto’s SPIN review.
- Read Ann Powers’ NPR review.