Mary Chapin Carpenter: Between Here And Gone
Style/Sound: Masterful Americana fusion featuring pensive, poetic themes
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- Though consummate singer and songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter has charted with lightweight tunes like "I Feel Lucky," her work is more typically drawn from a deeper well. Carpenter builds on her consistently artful body of work with the mature Between Here And Gone, a musical road novel of sorts that expands her musical reach and makes the most of her intelligent and thoughtful songwriting approach. The disc takes up where Paul Simon’s "America" leaves off, and it finds a recurring wanderer and others like her scanning a scarred country and seeking, however haphazardly, the land that lies somewhere beyond. Carpenter and her world-weary but not altogether somber cast of strangers, runaways and working stiffs find few clearcut answers but are nonetheless compelled to look. The album is a complex series of interwoven songs that don’t so much tell a story as set a mood - a mood neither idealistic nor entirely downbeat.
"Goodnight America" is part wistful farewell and part sweet salutation in which a traveler drives cross-country while an aching cello line winds its way behind. The driver, "looking with a pilgrim’s eyes," passes no judgment but searches for - and finds random pieces of - the promise hidden somewhere in the beleaguered and dog-eared land of opportunity. Elsewhere, a lone blue-collar laborer is repeatedly drawn to New York City’s historic hub of comings and goings in "Grand Central Station." The track echoes Bruce Springsteen in tone if not style, and the entire CD is comparable to similarly genre-transcending American artists such as Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin. "Beautiful Racket," one of the collection’s few upbeat tracks, forms (along with the title cut) the conceptual core of the record, which deals in contradictions, extremes and the gray areas within them, "a beautiful racket, in whispers and roars/the bitter and sweet, between the truces and the wars."
The journey detailed within also functions as a spiritual sojourn, as the record’s nomads look skyward on more than one occasion. In "My Heaven," Carpenter describes a custom-made, pain-free museum of memories where you’ll find presidents, fountains, little white lights and "your childhood dog in dad’s old chair." The vision is an idyllic one that reconciles "neighbors, thieves and long-lost lovers" but in which a supreme being is conspicuously absent. If Carpenter means to include a deity in her world, it isn’t clearly stated, although the closing cut, "Elysium," portrays an alternate take on the afterlife. The song, titled after the Greek word for paradise, allows, "sometimes you get there in spite of the route" and suggests that grace can be stumbled upon without a map, "on the fly and on the run."
Throughout, Carpenter’s low, throaty voice comes across intimately, like an emotionally attached narrator, while traditional country instruments like fiddle and pedal steel guitar subtly spice the atmospheric sound, creating a textured tapestry that is neither country nor pop, folk nor rock. Mingling with all these musical threads on Between Here And Gone are pain, longing, confusion and hope. Though all this may not make for an easy listen, it surely makes for an absorbing one.
Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.