Album Reviews

Mary Chapin Carpenter

The Things That We Are Made Of

Artist:     Mary Chapin Carpenter

Album:     The Things That We Are Made Of

Label:     Lambent Light/Thirty Tigers

Release Date:     05/06/2016


Although producer Dave Cobb was the seeker, I can’t shake the notion that Mary Chapin Carpenter saw the runaway success that he’s had with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton; and, like that eager outspoken student in class, frantically exclaimed, “Don’t forget about me.” After all, she is one of our most introspective, emotionally rich, and literate songwriters. She can paint with words. Her work would be strong almost regardless of who produced the record. Cobb, though, has a gift for subtle instrumentation and quietly teasing hooks that frame the superb lyrics much the way an elegant frame enhances a stunning painting. He places Carpenter’s mid-range eminently listenable, evocative voice dead center in the mix, making her messages even more meaningful. Cobb says, “I wanted to work with Mary Chapin because very few people can cut with words like she can. She’s an absolute poet and legend.” Mary Chapin commented in turn, “….He is always willing to try something new, believes that ‘yes’ is he only answer, and surrounds himself with wonderfully talented and generous musicians; by the end of the project , I felt as if I was a part of a new family.”

Thematically, just about every song is replete with images of maps and traveling. In fact, the eleven songs seem like one long extended play using similar chords and timbre. Mary Chapin poses rhetorical questions and asks for stillness when things get moving and seeks adventure when it gets too quiet. From the opening “Something Tamed, Something Wild,” we quickly observe her eye for detail in the image of “a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine,” as she peruses the hand written letters of a close friend. Her provocative analogies are quite revealing as in this passage from “Map of Your Heart” –“ The map of my heart looks a lot like yours /From the one way streets to the old detours.” She paints the image of the clouds holding the night and the trees holding the shade in “Deep Deep Down Heart.” She explores the concept of distance and desire in “What Does It Mean to Travel” and poses challenging questions to the late Sister Rosetta Tharpe while walking alone in New York. She captures the fragility of life and inability to catch up with a familiar person in this phrase “Will the wind blow you away/Like a note on a windshield” in “Note on a Windshield.”

I found myself going back to further examine her lyrics and the meaning of her songs. Interestingly enough it seems like Mary Chapin is still going through a similar process. “I haven’t finished thinking about it. It’s part of an ongoing conversation that I’m having with myself about my life…..All I can hope for is that people connect to it. That’s the most rewarding part of doing this work – believing that you’re speaking to what we all feel.” This is masterful, lasting work that will invite you on a journey that you can continually reflect upon.

– Jim Hynes

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