There’s never been a songwriter as unafraid to stare into the darkest levels of human nature as Gretchen Peters.
If her name sounds unfamiliar at first, listen to Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” or George Strait’s “Chill Of An Early Fall” and you’ll automatically be caught up to speed. As a solo artist, however, Peters’ discography is often labeled too “dark” for a broader audience (which is false, but more on that later), especially given her mantra – “sad songs make me happy.”
And those dark undertones have especially manifested themselves on Peters’ 2010s output, where an album like 2012’s Hello Cruel World speaks for itself with its title alone. And after her induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014, Peters doubled-down on an embrace with the darkness within, offering, in 2015, not only an album I count as my favorite album of the decade, but also her best work yet with Blackbirds.
I’ll admit to there being some degree of inaccessibility with Blackbirds; Peters touches upon themes of murder, depression and PTSD here, and that’s just within the first three tracks. But there’s a grounded reality to the situations at hand, sometimes affecting common groups of people, and sometimes touching upon ordeals we’ll all inevitably have to endure at some point. And like a true storyteller, Peters reveals more with every line. A grown woman watches her childhood home burn to the ground on “The House On Auburn Street,” and while there’s a sadness knowing those childhood memories are now gone, there’s also a slight satisfaction seeing the place where her presumed brother dealt with substance abuse completely vanish. Or take the title track, which finds a daughter grow tired of her father’s abuse enough to kill him, only she can’t rest yet when there’s a witness involved. This isn’t a concept album in the traditional sense, but the common thread along Blackbirds finds good people pushed to their extremes, both mentally and physically.
Not to say that there isn’t some excellent drama thrown into the stakes of the title track or “Jubilee,” but the most cutting element of Blackbirds is how simple its situations actually are. In a nutshell, these situations happen, whether they directly affect us or not. The title track is a murder ballad, plain and simple; and “When You All Got Is A Hammer” uses that popular saying to depict a father succumbing to PTSD, a common theme in country music. What elevates them, though, is how far Peters is willing to go to depict those situations, almost literally entering the minds of her characters and making us understand, whether she herself truly does or not. The only time her own perspective enters the fold is toward the end; first through the cover of David Mead’s “Nashville,” which implies her own battle involves observing destruction and putting it into words, and “The Cure For The Pain,” the album’s thesis statement, to put it bluntly.
And sure, there’s a degree of specificity to each track where one might not hit as hard as another for each listener, but hey, no one is escaping death; and that’s why “Jubilee” is one of the grandest farewells I’ve ever heard, showing an everyday person ready to move on to whatever is next after life, not necessarily beat, but overjoyed at the thought of seeing everyone who went before him again. If there’s any moment of levity, too, it’s “When You Comin’ Home,” though it hits harder now with Jimmy LaFave’s passing – a rare moment on the album that finds itself in the aftermath of destruction, where a former alcoholic rebuilds his life to get back to who he used to be. After all, like Peters says elsewhere, the cure for the pain is the pain, and even if it’s never guaranteed, sometimes those second chances are there.
For as subdued as Blackbirds is, instrumentally, its little touches do a surprising amount of heavy lifting. The songs build intensity through restraint, like the low-simmering growl of the scuzzy electric guitar on the title track to insinuate what this man has coming to him. Or take the uneasy ascension of the accordion on “Blackbirds” to heighten that tense feeling of the incoming storm. Meanwhile, there’s the nasty groove of “When All You Got Is A Hammer,” to, well, once again signal that impending danger (I’m resorting to clichés now, but when they work, they work), or the ethereal touches of piano to give “Jubilee” that gentle, needed sendoff. The tones mostly build through a sense of atmosphere, like the glistening textures of “Pretty Things” to mask what is otherwise a mental breakdown, or the pure sweeping spaciousness of “Everything Falls Away,” in which Peters’ cry at the end is one of my favorite moments in music ever.
Which, of course, also shows how much Peters herself contributes to this project, outside of her writing. She has a knack for stretching out those lines with a hushed demeanor, in turn being one of the best possible personalities behind the microphone for this kind of material. Again, one can’t doubt how well she understands her characters, and whether she’s selling pure, seething rage on the title track or “When All You Got Is A Hammer,” or finding herself on the opposite end of that broken spectrum on “Pretty Things” or “Everything Falls Away,” she connects.
To step away from my role as a critic, I’m going to offer why I connected with Blackbirds more than any other album this past decade. This album was released in February 2015; I lost a friend to a car accident in March that same year and didn’t hear this album until June. No, I don’t understand the full effects of PTSD, watching my childhood house burn down or quite a few other sentiments shared here. But I do believe we find the best parts of ourselves only by staring our darkest elements head-on. For me and my situation, “Everything Falls Away” was the track that wouldn’t let go of me that year, and it will always remind me of that incident. The whole album will, really. But it’s also helped me better contextualize certain mysteries of life, even if I’ll never fully understand them. And I think for as dark and heavy as this album is, “inaccessible” is unequivocally the most inappropriate word used to describe it, or any other material in this vein. For that, and the aforementioned reasons above, Blackbirds by Gretchen Peters is my favorite album of the decade.
(Author’s note: I originally only planned on talking about my five favorite albums of the decade in a single week. Obviously, that got sidetracked, but writing about what these five albums mean to me has been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had with this outlet. So I’m going to write about more of them as the year progresses. Call them honorable mentions or whatever else you want.)