Though The Balladeer doesn’t necessarily break any new ground for Lori McKenna, the peppier production and presentation style makes it one of her most engaging albums in years.
I’m a firm believer that, as a wannabe music critic, it’s nearly impossible to discuss art from an objective viewpoint. Quality is quality, but there’s also times where we’re not quite on the same bandwagon as everyone else with regards to certain artists, and as diligent music listeners, it’s our job to figure out why.
And after years of listening through Lori McKenna’s discography, I’ve always said I’m not quite at the point in my life where I fully understand her brand of world-weary wisdom and experience, though I seem to inch closer to doing so every year … OK, day. But that’s always made my reviews of her work come with the awkward disclaimer that: I like it, but I don’t quite love it. I’ve always found the presentation to leave a little to be desired – mostly due to Dave Cobb’s production work – and I’ve always found the framing to feel a bit forced in trying to forge a connection with the audience.
With that said, time and perspective have also shown me why she’s resonated so loudly with others over the past few years. She’s far from a new artist, though I don’t think it’s unfair to say 2016’s The Bird & The Rifle was a real breakout period for her. A deserved one, too; her popularity from “Girl Crush” spoke volumes to country radio’s inherent sexism, and “Humble & Kind” was both a needed rebound for Tim McGraw as well as a shot of reality at a time when country music had strayed from being about “real life,” as that branding usually goes.
And that album carried on what McKenna was already best at – writing homespun stories marked by age and experience, often informed by hardbitten doses of reality … which is basically all that needs to be said at this point when approaching a new McKenna record, including her latest one, The Balladeer. And while I can see this being viewed as one of her weaker records – for reasons I’ll explain – this might be the first McKenna album I can get on board for without any hesitations whatsoever, and that’s a great feeling.
So what’s the difference? Well, for starters, the production and instrumentation – a shift away from the sparse tendencies of her previous two albums in favor of something with a bit more bite and presence to it. Granted, McKenna is more of a lyricist than she is a composer, but considering I always wanted just a bit more heft to the actual presentation, the subtle changes here are great. Subtle, too, is the keyword here, where the accented piano flourishes support a stronger melodic presentation while glistening guitars and string accents help to bolster it. Truthfully, coming off of Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest album, Old Flowers, a lot of what I liked there is what I like here: the sunnier melody to “Good Fight” to keep things grounded without being overwrought; the burnished haze to the guitar line of “The Dream” that bolsters the content; the emphasized piano that accents the melody of “When You’re My Age”; and the warm, supple groove that’s always acted as the foundation for her work, yet feels even more pronounced on this album overall, especially on tracks like “This Town Is A Woman” and “Two Birds.”
Granted, while the changes made are minimal, really, it’s easy to notice it’s a choice from both Cobb and McKenna to help flesh out her sound, where the obvious counterpoint to that is, it’s Lori McKenna – just stay out of the way and let her stand on her own. I can’t always argue with that; I’m not exactly wild about the multitracking on the title track that takes away from an otherwise great story. And I can’t be the only one to notice that the piano chord progressions in “Two Birds” sounds eerily similar to the ones on “Young and Angry Again” from her previous album.
Of course, that leads to another point, in that McKenna’s work always feels strikingly familiar. She writes songs about lessons learned with a strong emphasis on family. Like she sings in the first line of “Stuck In High School,” even she’s aware of how much she returns to these themes. Granted, that can be an issue when certain tracks stand above others on the same album – I enjoy the string outro of “Till You’re Grown,” but it’s a track that drags on way too long and is handled better on “When You’re My Age,” where I like how the advice given to her children follows a natural progression that will serve them as they age. Advice that serves them well in the first verse is much different from advice served in the final chorus as she tells them what to expect when they raise their own children.
More than most McKenna albums, too, the focus is often either on her or her family – which has always been the case, really, but feels more personal and inward-focused here. There’s also a strong focus on empathy, of course, like how she forges a bond with a sister who’s nothing like her on “Marie” after their mother passes away, which also shows how there’s a distance on this album that needs to be mended; family is family, after all. Sometimes it’s metaphorical, like “The Dream,” where she watches a presumed dead parent or grandparent meet a younger version of themselves they’ll only ever know through her mind; sometimes it’s awkward, like how two sisters end up falling for the same person on “Two Birds” and where those tensions aren’t as easy to mend; or take “Good Fight,” where the focus is on celebrating togetherness in a relationship, but only after acknowledging it’s not always easy to, you know, stay together. Tensions are bound to occur. It’s reflected better there than on “Uphill” before it, which doesn’t offer the same homespun details to a similar theme and, as such, doesn’t land with the same impact.
But with a stronger focus on storytelling that doesn’t shy away from heavier dramatic stakes or the bleaker details of life, I’m happy to say that The Balladeer does land with a great impact. It’s an album where the presentation is a tad sharper than before, and one that tests McKenna’s rugged demeanor better than it has in a long time. Of course, it’s also easy to just say, “it’s a Lori McKenna album – just go listen to it,” but I’m also happy to really connect with her work in a way I haven’t before. Between McKenna, Courtney Marie Andrews and Taylor Swift, it was a great release week for sad, slow-burning story songs – of course this hits its mark.
- Favorite tracks: “Marie,” “Stuck In High School,” “Two Birds,” “This Town Is A Woman (feat. Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman),” “The Dream”
- Least favorite track: “The Balladeer”