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.

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