Brandy Clark looks inward on Your Life Is A Record, and the change in focus and sonic direction lacks the same punch as her previous material.
At the risk of sounding like a hipster, it genuinely sucks that, despite the growing prominence of independent country music, the average country fan is still more likely to recognize the average C-list act at country radio than they are the biggest independent artist, or others with real groundswell support.
For songwriters, too, that statement only grows more depressingly real; they stick to the shadows, and chances are if you know their songs, you know them because of someone else (which, granted, is good for the actual business structure, but the point stands). Yet that’s only when disregarding the bigger picture. Brandy Clark, for example, may not have gotten the radio support she wanted from 2016’s Big Day In A Small Town, but she made other strides allowing her to pursue her artistic ambitions in spite of a missed commercial opportunity. For one, she was a part of Dave Cobb’s 2016 super project Southern Family and toured with Eric Church, and there are ways to sidestep radio airplay for a sustainable career, especially now.
Still, the disappointment in a lack of airplay is frustratingly understandable, and considering her new album, Your Life Is A Record, comes now four years later and was born out a period of burnout for her and producer Jay Joyce, there was no telling where Clark was going to go next. It’s not surprising, then, that this album is another shift in direction for Clark, albeit one that changes her usual outward lyrical focus in favor of exploring the aftermath of a 15-year-relationship with a significant other. Well, that, and an album that eschews the rougher tendencies of Big Day In A Small Town and the quieter grace of 12 Stories for an odd blend of vulnerability and theatricality, but more on that later.
With that said, Your Life Is A Record feels more like a transition into whatever is next for Clark, rather than a bold new step forward. Despite its focus, it’s an effort that shows her moving past her grief in a lighthearted manner, which also means that, in a nutshell, it’s good, but it punches less harder than her previous material.
And despite the huge shift in sound, I’d argue the bigger change comes through in lyrics and themes. Before, Clark’s focus looked outward, with stories centered around controversial subject matter that landed with real punch and humanity. Her characters were complex and detailed, caught in hopeless situations where there’s no comfortable answer. Here, that focus really only shows itself on the excellent “Pawn Shop,” and that’s not bad, mind you. When Clark turns the focus on herself, that mature perspective still resonates. Granted, part of that is because Clark is a more compelling singer than even she’ll give herself credit for, with a knack for understating her inner grief as she sifts through the aftermath of a relationship. And the biggest focus is on seeing that pain as a way to move forward by never forgetting, but understanding the bigger takeaways from a relationship. I’m still not wild about the scattershot, list-like tendencies of “Who You Thought I Was,” but the turnaround of the hook reflecting Clark wanting to be the better person her significant other thought she was is still excellent. And by often framing herself as “the bad guy” in these scenarios, she comes across with a grounded nuance and poise, like the excellently framed “I’ll Be The Sad Song” or “Can We Be Strangers,” which, with its soulful groove and synth tone, reminded most of an unheard ‘80s Reba McEntire song. And then there’s “The Past Is The Past,” the kind of track Clark excels best at, where she puts on that brave face and does her best to follow her own advice and move on, even when the subtext suggests the actual pain will never really leave.
The thing is, though, those moments don’t come as often as they should. That’s not to say Clark’s other attempts are inferior; it’s that this album intentionally balances those serious moments with lighter, more humorous moments … and as someone who remembers “Illegitimate Children,” I’ll also say Clark hasn’t ever been as effective in that lane.
Granted, that’s more of a note on the instrumentation and production, the other big shift for both Clark and Joyce. To his credit, Joyce has improved leaps and bounds over the years as a producer, with a better handle on subtlety and eschewing his tendency to crank up the percussion, though he did manage to sneak in an off-putting drum machine into “Apologies” that doesn’t work well. Here, I can’t deny that, despite the multiple layers these songs carry, the blending is incredibly well-done. The tones are crisp and warm, with the usual bits of acoustics carrying the melody while the big change in recruiting the Memphis Strings & Horns means these songs often feel lush and vibrant.
Yet this album also stands apart from similar production approaches from, as of late, Dan Auerbach’s foray into country music through other artists or even the atmospheric tendencies of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, mostly because the bigger focus is still supporting the lyrical tone. “I’ll Be The Sad Song” may be a fairly low-key opener, but the blend of acoustics, the low-end growl of the saxophone, the strings and even the snippets of ragtime trumpets toward the end all blend in seamlessly, and better than one might expect for Clark’s style. Yet the tones are never decidedly vintage, either, mostly thanks to a modern production sheen that keeps everything clean and focused.
With that said, however, the album does have an odd theatrical flair about it, and when it’s used to support the lighter moments here, it’s not as effective. And it’s not that it’s so much bad as it is flighty and uneventful; Clark can pull off a mean kiss-off track quite well, but the lusher tendencies of “Long Walk” strike more as an odd tonal imbalance than anything else. There’s also “Who Broke Whose Heart,” a moment where Joyce reverts back to his worst production tendencies by cranking up the reverb on Clark’s vocals in the chorus. Plus, the song tries hard to form that big, bouncy groove, and instead it’s oddly wonky and never quite fluctuates. And for as hard as Clark and Randy Newman are trying on “Bigger Boat,” they lack the chemistry needed to sell that track. Of course, it’s a moment like that which tilts into the album’s cheesier tendencies, and for as gorgeous as “Love Is A Fire” sounds, it rings as generic coming from Clark.
Granted, there are no outright missteps, and I can understand using humor or a lighter touch as a coping mechanism with this album’s thematic arc; but it does lack the tighter punch Clark is usually capable of providing on her material. And it’s not like the best moments here stand outside that arc, either; it’s easy to make the joke about how all country dudes seem to do is sing about how much they love their trucks, but when Clark sings about a broke-down vehicle that meant a lot to her on “Bad Car,” the experiences are shaped around her adult life rather than the usual teenage years, lending a different sense of poignancy to the sendoff. And the easy highlight overall is “Pawn Shop,” which adopts that outward perspective and wit that I do miss here. If this album is going to adopt a theatrical flair to this project, her usual stage is a dark, depressing place where the dreamers go to give up, only to find that inner strength and see that dream live on, either in themselves or by passing it on to someone who’ll carry it out. It’s what makes the progression of “Pawn Shop” work so effectively, and how two unrelated items in a wedding band and guitar come from two weathered, broken characters who have to move on and chase different dreams; meanwhile, those items sit just waiting to start a new journey with someone else.
Of course, that last paragraph also lends a subtext to the record that isn’t always supported by the actual text, and for as much as I respect the overall shift of Your Life Is A Record, I’d be remiss not to mention it’s not quite punching as hard for me. And while the shift in instrumentation is lovely and works well, it’s also the third time Clark has pivoted toward a new sound on just her third album; there’s a difference between being eclectic and still feeling like you’re trying to find the right balance, in other words. But it’d also be unfair to say there aren’t a lot of lovely moments here either or that Clark’s ambition isn’t still more welcome than what many of her peers are offering with their own material. Again, this feels like a transitional album – something Clark needed to address before acknowledging “the past is the past,” and considering she’s more interested in courting those artistic ambitions over radio airplay these days, that’s more than enough reason to not only welcome Clark back after four long years, but also look forward to whatever is next.
- Favorite tracks: “Pawn Shop,” “The Past Is The Past,” “Who You Thought I Was,” “I’ll Be The Sad Song,” “Bad Car”
- Least favorite track: “Long Walk”