Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘The Tree’

Lori McKenna

The short version: ‘The Tree’ is good, and to the right listener, great. But there’s also a frustrating problem with Lori McKenna’s framing at times.

The long version: Even if it’s good to have new music from Lori McKenna, it’s our fault for treating her as a newer artist. Then again though, the last few years are unfortunately how most people found McKenna, myself included. At the very least, it’s when started making it a priority to feature her on music websites.

It couldn’t have been for a lack of material either, as McKenna has been making thought-provoking, great music since 2000’s Paper Wings and Halo. Maybe it’s just a reflection of the times though and how independent country music has only now caught up with the age of internet sharing and alternative avenues to success. Regardless, while McKenna received a deserved boost in prominence thanks to cuts from Tim McGraw and Little Big Town, it’s fitting that her music is now front and center for discussion.

The Tree is an interesting listen, with the thematic stakes a tad lighter than previous releases even if it is one of her most consistent projects yet. It’s an album that tackles the concept of time from multiple perspectives, and while there are several great cuts here, the multiple perspectives can also mean that certain tracks will connect more with certain listeners than others.

And that also makes it hard to remain objective with this album, because it’s a rare case where the level of enjoyment might fluctuate depending on how much one can connect to the scenario present.

Granted, this also ties in with an admittedly frustrating framing of McKenna’s writing at times. Like any great writer, her details are specific and nuanced while painting a picture, but she also often writes from the second person point of view, forcing the listener to connect with the song instead of letting it come naturally. As such, when sings about how “you” did this or “you did that, it ties back to the ability, or lack thereof, to connect with the song and perspective. More often than not, listeners can connect to the overall theme or sentiment of the track, but when the writing is this specific, forcing the connection can make the listener feel more lost than anything.

It’s still good, but again, it does force the connection rather than let it come from being swayed by the story often. McKenna is at her best when she brings in either her own perspective or an outside one. The former trait is evident on the beautiful opener, “A Mother Never Rests.” The latter trait is evident on the album highlight, “The Fixer” showing the decay of a marriage through beautiful symbolism and minor acoustic chords to help make that disconnected feeling and rift that much more apparent between these two old lovers.

Symbolism is also apparent on the title track, a fascinating, complex track where the narrator is forced to remain in her hometown despite her rebellious spirit, using a tree she’s seen grow from day one as a symbol for remaining stuck. The irony comes when the tree is able to remind her of her childhood memories and the best days, thus making it a bittersweet, but still hopeful reflection.

The ultimate thematic arc of this album though explores both younger and older perspectives in different roles, highlighting how the various struggles shift direction over time. Unlike most country songs today exploring a youthful point of view though, there’s no real glorification of the younger days. It’s mostly anger that stems from dreams not chased or missed opportunities, with the fire shifting from anger as we get older to a sense of wanting protection and love for our family. In other words, it showcases how we think more about others than ourselves as we grow older, an admirable quality that many growing up will likely relate to.

Of course, it doesn’t mean the fire has subsided. Sometimes the love is of the tougher variety, like on the shorter, cutting, “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone,” where the the history of neglect is implied and the disappointment is all that remains.

Like a “tree” as well, the album sports many branches, with several tracks here feeling like sequels to others. The aforementioned “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone” feels like the aftermath of “The Fixer.” Meanwhile “Young And Angry Again” feels like it takes place years after the events of the title track and “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” with certain tracks like “People Get Old” exploring both sides of the coin at the same time. Despite these varying perspectives, the album never feels incohesive as it ultimately relates back to the same message. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

“The Way Back Home” is also loaded with great advice that feels like it stems from personal experience from McKenna, with the sly message to hang onto that youthful fire lingering throughout.

“Happy People,” seems to exist outside of the thematic arc and feels like a lesser track. While the punchy production is leagues better than the Little Big Town version, it also remains one of McKenna’s preachiest songs to date while never really taking off. “Like Patsy Would” also seems to exist outside of the thematic arc, but as the closer, it also feels like the closing of a book and, therefore, a personal desire from McKenna to better herself as an artist and move on to the next chapter in her career. 

McKenna herself would likely admit she’s more of a lyricist than a composer, so while there isn’t much to discuss with the instrumentation and production, this department, as well as the melodies, could have afforded a little more identity or variety.

But again, The Tree is a really good album, but it’s also going to get better the more you directly relate to it. As someone who resonates a lot with “The Way Back Home,” I’ll admit I’m not quite at that age where everything connects with me in the same way it might connect with others, and that’s alright. It’s an album where the subjectivity will play the biggest role in determining one’s love for it. Still, this is undeniably good lyrically, and McKenna’s sincerity brings a new level to the performances. If anything, The Tree is one of the most interesting albums to discuss this year in country music.

(Strong 07/10)

  • Favorite tracks: “The Fixer,” “The Way Back Home,” “Like Patsy Would,” “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone,” “A Mother Never Rests”
  • Least favorite track: “Happy People”

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