The Loneliness in Me is a fantastic late entry for one of the year’s best albums, an excellent starting point in Rachel Brooke’s discography, and a welcome return-to-form.
I’ve discussed the underground country movement of the 2000s and early 2010s before, namely its final years and subsequent destruction – or restructuring, depending on how you want to view it. While I cited a lack of real leadership and greater groundswell support behind it, truthfully, another simple reason came down to artists moving on to focus on either their personal lives or finding alternative ways of furthering their recording careers. Remember, this is back when acts didn’t reach the same level of support as mainstream country music’s C-list acts (and some B-list ones, too), namely because this was a country-punk fusion that couldn’t go mainstream if it tried, or wanted to, for that matter.
In other words, while it’s incorrect to say The Loneliness in Me is Rachel Brooke’s first album since 2012’s A Killer’s Dream – she’s released a few scattered projects over the years, including a great collaborative effort with Lonesome Wyatt on 2015’s Bad Omen – it is the first one since then where the focus is on the music first and foremost. She stepped away from the scene to raise her child and is now looking to reassert her place within an entirely new indie-country landscape. Granted, part of the charm of her earlier work was the versatility, namely in her approach to anything from straightforward country to blues, punk and rockabilly, so it should still be an easy fit, given that the soundscape is pretty wide open now, right?
Upon listening to Brooke’s latest album, there’s certainly a change in overall tone to fit the modern scene, and this may be her most straightforward country release yet. But for as much as the immediate comparisons to old legends or modern acts engaging in a throwback aesthetic come to mind, not only does Brooke elude any attempts at being kitschy, she’s also adapted amazingly well with her sound. Now, granted, by “adapted,” what I mean, ultimately, is that this album pulls from the same atmospheric, dreamy production techniques heard on most modern country albums in this lane. Her take is certainly more organic, though, and by focusing the tinges of reverb and echo around her voice, it reveals a deeper shade and emotive presence that comes out strikingly well here, and just wasn’t there before.
Again, too, it’s hard not to reference her earlier work when making that point, mostly because this isn’t a ragged, hard-charged work; it’s polished and well put-together, and when the melodies are this strikingly well-written, it’s a change for the better. Granted, it’s polished to a fault, and my biggest nitpick is, with this album playing to a slower, mid-tempo vibe overall, it can get a bit sleepy at points and could have used another moment like the title track to heighten the mood.
Of course, production is an easy starting point for this album, namely in the deeper intricacies that show themselves in the overall balance and mix. Not only is there a lot of warmth to the pedal steel and fiddle pickups that blend beautifully with Brooke’s voice, but again, the devil is in the details. Take, for example, how the drums do a surprising amount of heavy lifting against the fiddle on “Ghost of You” to keep that momentum going – fitting, too, with the Johnny Cash reference in there – but mostly frame a lot of the lyrical subtext, namely in the album’s thematic arc of pushing through in spite of overbearing anxiety and depression that can make it often impossible to do so, try as we may. Similarly, the boozy saloon piano on “Picture on the Wall” turns an otherwise painful reminder of a person’s memory into something that helps someone hang on, even if it’s an unhealthy coping mechanism that provides temporary relief, at best. And then there’s “The Awful Parts of Me,” which sounds like it’s pulling from three different eras overall yet handles the transitions surprisingly well, especially with the big finishing Doo-wop touches that I really loved. Again, it’s all very much rooted in classic country themes and melodies, but there’s a deeper texture to every element here that makes it stand out, even if subtly, and even if that subtlety is intentional.
That only makes more sense when examining the main influences that Brooke has cited for this album, the aforementioned Johnny Cash and Roger Miller. And the latter one makes a lot of sense when digging into the content. Granted, this isn’t aiming for punchy humor or lighter stakes in the same way Miller did, but it’s worth noting that, for as dark as this album already is on the surface, the brighter moments are dark, too. I already referenced the sadder subtext that manifests itself on “Picture on the Wall,” but songs like the title track reference my earlier point: Brooke is an independent musician navigating through a changed world, and whether she’s referencing the hardships she faced then – because no matter the subgenre or time period, country music has a problem with more than strong woman working at the forefront – or faces now as a working mother in a changed musical environment, the integrity keeps her going, but it doesn’t make that journey any less lonely or more rewarding.
Really, though, if I didn’t know any better, I’d peg The Loneliness in Me as a breakup album, notably in its intention to dig deeper and understand where things went awry for Brooke, leading to more introspective and complicated material. The blunt framing is still there, but it’s more the result of putting a brave face on “It Ain’t over ‘til You’re Crying” and “Great Mistake” before revealing the deeper scars of that hurt on “The Hard Way” she’s home alone and forced to confront those demons. She’s not absolving herself of culpability, either, acknowledging that her self-destructive tendencies on “The Lovells Stockade Blues” and own habit of burning out too fast and early can cause that friction to easily occur. Here’s the thing, too, for as much as this album plays out with that plotline, its focus is always on the aftermath and never on how things went down, which, when considered how it’s interwoven with Brooke’s own personal struggles as an independent musician over the past several years, cuts much deeper because of it. Relationships are just the delivery system for that message, which is telling, given that “Ghost of You” is vague enough to be about losing someone – anyone … even something – without being outright generic.
And by the end, when it’s clear she’s on the receiving end of unrequited love on “Lonely and Alone,” “The Awful Parts of Me” and “Undecided Love,” that bitter guard from before is down and she’s just numb and used to the feeling. She wants to love and, by extension, chase her dream, and that tragic ambition really underscores the fantastic backhalf of this project. I would say certain tracks like “It Won’t Be Long” and “The Lovells Stockade Blues” feel a tad underwritten in comparison with the rest of the album, and again, pacing is also an issue. But as far as pure country music goes, this is a fantastic late entry for the year, and an excellent starting point in Brooke’s discography. She may not feel it, but welcome back anyway.
- Favorite tracks: “Undecided Love,” “The Awful Parts of Me,” “Ghost of You,” “The Loneliness in Me,” “Great Mistake”
- Least favorite track: “It Won’t Be Long”