Nora Jane Struthers may not reinvent the wheel with Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words, but her wry perspective means that what she does, she does damn well.
To start by addressing an honest elephant in the room, critical assessments of an artist’s work are just that – assessments, not final rulings; and for as much as we can analyze works and draw comparisons to other works and an artist’s personal life, it’s a dangerous exercise that’s never perfect. The art may or may not be an open book into their personal world, in other words.
But if there’s one artist where that assessment is almost needed, it’s Nora Jane Struthers, an artist who’s released a string of critically acclaimed albums in the Americana realm. In recent years, she’s framed her works as concept albums centered around her life, including 2017’s Champion – focusing on her first year of marriage to husband/bandmate Joe Overton– and her latest album, Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words, focusing on the next steps after that – motherhood, and her fight to get to that point.
If I were to describe this album, however, I’d say it’s of a dual perspective; with some songs finding Struthers in the midst of that chaos while others find her reflecting on the calm after that storm. And sure, it’s ultimately an album about an artist grappling with whether or not chasing their dreams is worth it if it means compromising family (a compelling, but certainly not novel concept), but what makes this project stand out is a sense of well-worn simplicity. Take the opener, “Nice To Be Back Home,” for example, where the details start as mundane. She’s sipping coffee in her home while making a casual observation that the lawn needs mowed, yet it, as well as the bigger picture of the track of finding stability, is delivered with such an exuberant energy that it’s damn-near cathartic, even if that shines more on other tracks.
Of course, that bright energy comes through in all areas of this album, but it’s most noticeable in the production and instrumentation, which is playing to a rough-edged, ram-shackled roots-rock palette with a ton of bite and smolder in the lead guitars. Couple that, too, with drums that have a ton of kick to them and lingering pedal steel and bass for accent marks, and what sounds like a simple mix surprisingly does a lot here. And what’s most enticing are the moments that creep up, especially when they compliment the writing: the low-end interplay of the pedal steel and bass on “I Feel Like My Old Self” before that guitar snarls its way back in after she’s, well … found her old self; the pure driving energy behind the instrumentation on “The Turnpike”; the reverb added on “To Catch A Phoenix” for an added dark smolder that settles into a low-end growl on “The Hunger”; and when that solo kicks in for “We Made It” – trust me, you’ll know it when you hear it – again, “cathartic” may be my most overused term here, but the energy here is infectious.
If anything, though, it also helps to flesh out one of my few criticisms for this project, namely that when it settles into a more of a predictable neotraditional country groove on, say, “Slow Climb” or “I Want It All,” it’s not as interesting or distinct, especially when those tracks are just further extensions of the thematic arc rather than interesting standalone songs. That’s not to say, however, that the quieter moments are weaker. If anything, tracks like “A Good Thing” and “Good Friends” highlight how much Struthers, herself, is contributing to the heart of the project, vocally. She has the sort of wispy, gravelly tone with a lot of lived-in wisdom, confidence and optimism that carries a lot of hangdog charisma behind it. And when she’s inviting you into her world to revel in her happiness, it’s hard not to feel it. And she further shades in otherwise simpler topics with a lot of heart and detail behind them, like on “The Turnpike” or “I Feel Like My Old Self.”
And though she and the instrumentation and the production do the bulk of the heavy lifting here, the writing can’t be dismissed either. Again, on paper, certain sentiments can come across as mundane or underdeveloped. But when it ends with the obvious celebration of “We Made It,” I’d call it borderline cheesy if it wasn’t filled with so much heartfelt earnestness to negate that claim. And that, in a nutshell, is the key to Struthers’ delivery. She’s adept at fleshing out her details as her songs progress, even if the core message is simple. And the deeper subtext, again, catches this album in a dual mold. On one hand, she’s thankful for the way she can use music to bring joy and satisfaction to people on “Nice To Be Back Home,” but there also comes a point of burnout where those breaks away from it all are necessary. And when she catches herself just being thankful to have a moment and watch her husband drink coffee in their own kitchen, it’s an oddly specific detail that carries more weight when considered in the context of the project.
In a larger sense, too, this album is about Struthers getting back home and getting back to who she was. Of course, she’s also self-aware enough to know that life constantly moves forward, often for the better; and while “The Turnpike” is an excellent reflection on her younger days, as she says, “I don’t want to live there now,” because it’s a moment of time she couldn’t get back anyway. Still, it’s nice to just take a moment and reflect, both on the past and present, which this album never forgets.
And when the album deviates from its simplistic, blunt framing to something a little more abstract – like the string of songs beginning with “To Catch A Phoenix” and ending with “Cold And Lonely Dark” – it’s a welcome fit too, mostly due to the sharper production that compliments the dark platitudes of the writing. It’s also this trio of songs that seems to represent the other side of the project, namely where Struthers struggles with the anxiety of balancing her career with a family life; the precursor to the main themes of happiness and stability shown here, in other words. Ultimately, she finds that balance, if only because both her career and her home life require that rare sense of passion and devotion that weirdly intertwine with one another.
But outside of certain tracks like “Slow Climb” indulging too much in the cheesier tendencies of this album and “Cold And Lonely Dark” meandering toward its end, it’s hard to find much at fault here, even if the obvious (and fair) criticism is its simplicity. To me, however, that’s its most refreshing element, and what I found with Bright Lights, Long Drives, First Words was an album with a lot of honest heart behind it. And though it’s an album about Struthers’ own happiness and journey to just being “OK,” it’s hard not to feel its positive energy.
- Favorite tracks: “The Turnpike,” “To Catch A Phoenix,” “I Feel Like My Old Self,” “Nice To Be Back Home,” “We Made It”
- Least favorite track: “Slow Climb”