Oh, this is a welcome surprise.
And the thing is, it’s the sort of surprise you both do and don’t expect to see in 2021. I mean, it’s basically required now for artists to expand upon already finished projects months down the road – it’s the age of instant gratification and the album serving more to launch multiple singles rather than being, you know, an album.
This, however, was different … or at least it felt like it. It was easy to view Carly Pearce’s 29 EP as a quick and needed rebound from her self-titled album, and it was easy to respect the choice to keep it short and simple to get it out of the way. And I don’t mean that as a slight, because that was a solid project. But, like with all EPs, it did feel somewhat too short, and while I wouldn’t say it was lacking, it did leave you wanting more, even if it is one of the few projects to use the EP format in a meaningful way.
And I don’t think the groundswell support behind it in the months since is lost on Pearce, because while it’s easy to expand upon projects as an easy way to gain streams, her newest project, 29: Written in Stone, feels more like a natural expansion of not only a more agreeable sound for her, but an interesting divorce narrative that’s perfectly suited for the genre. And if 29 came together to form her best project yet, short as it was, Written in Stone is the needed full-circle moment that puts Pearce on another level.
For a change of pace, though, let’s address the writing and themes first, because while this is mostly an extension of that EP’s themes of fleshing out even further where things went wrong between Pearce and Michael Ray as well as her own personal anxieties in questioning her decisions made ever since – enough to where the album may even overdo it by adding in every single track from that EP when a few would have sufficed – it’s nearly always compelling. I would still say that the issues I had with some of the clunkier wordplay in “Liability” are, obviously, still here, and I’m now definitely ready to say that “Show Me Around” didn’t need to be brought back over and feels out of place specifically here.
At the same time, you need this EP to make the entire project work, if only to sketch the fuller picture beyond just that divorce. Although, yes, it is certainly righteously justified to have as many tracks as we do calling out Ray’s infidelity and alcoholism here; “What He Didn’t Do” and “Next Girl” both cut in the best way possible. But I also think there’s a hidden strength in Pearce questioning her own culpability in what could have led to all of that, namely in her own tendencies of falling too hard and too fast and feeling a societal pressure to grow up as quickly as possible – hence why the title track is still one of the most vulnerably potent moments here.
And really, it’s also what frames the other two best songs here. I like her imaginary conversation with Loretta Lynn on “Dear Miss Loretta,” especially when she knows how even though Lynn and her husband made it to the end, it was also a different time period when that was expected. And Lynn’s own songs reveal it wasn’t always as easy as it looked to keep it together, which shows that, really, the hidden message between her songs and this song specifically is that … it’s OK if it does fall apart. There’s an opportunity for personal growth within it, as evidenced by this project in general. I’ll be honest, outside of the familial connection, I’m not sure Patty Loveless necessarily needed to be here to make this work, but I’m so happy to hear her voice again, and even happier she got an entire verse to herself.
But you know, while we’re on the subject of strong, independent women in country music, while I’m not wild about the clunky lyrical flow on the Kelsea Ballerini-co-write of “Diamondback,” I love the juxtaposition between Pearce and Ashley McBryde on “Never Wanted to Be That Girl,” especially when the low-end smolder in the guitar lines sound almost too natural to lead McBryde in, given her own style. And it’s that track where the real scars show, and how even though one can eventually move on from the person doing the cheating and drinking – where here these two find themselves on opposite ends of the relationship with the same significant other – they can’t escape the memories or the feeling that they’re to blame for causing it. And of course no one ever is in those situations, but it’s the unfortunate reality of the takeaways from it.
At 15 tracks, you certainly get the point of all of that, and I’m not sure every track necessarily delving into similar subject material here is essential or doesn’t get overshadowed by better tracks here, but that’s what takes us to the instrumentation and production. Now, let me state up front that, while I’ve thrilled to see Pearce turn toward a more traditional-leaning direction with plenty of warm and welcome amounts of fiddle and mandolin augmenting the mix – especially when on a fantastic, smoldering slow-burn like “Dear Miss Loretta” – her past attempts at combining that sound with a more contemporary, and yes, pop-leaning focus have never bothered me outright. Even her self-titled 2020 album – which I’d easily regard as her weakest work by now – had more dobro that I could even remember hearing on a mainstream country album. The issue always came down to clunky production that didn’t suit her; The honest strength here just comes down to better focus and blending of the elements.
Which is to say that, no, I’m not sure “Diamondback” carries the intended punch in the darker strings and acoustics that nevertheless feel too polished, or that the overall chipper focus of “Your Drinkin’, My Problem” really flatters that track, but after scanning through the rest of the project … yeah, those are about my only issues! I mean, hell, “Easy Going” opts for a damn bluegrass jam session by its end with the multiple extended solos, and it’s awesome! And between the rollicking uptempo acoustics carrying “Next Girl,” the supple blend of strings and fiddle that shine through beautifully on the title track, or even the earned guitar crescendo on the cathartic “Day One,” there’s a real variety to this project that never lets it drag.
But if this album needed anything, it was a strong way to end it, and I’m happy to say that “Day One” is still a fantastic way to tie it all together from before … though so is the even better “Mean It This Time,” which really ties every main theme back together beautifully but also in a way that earns its reprieve in the minor, muted acoustics. And it ends what is easily Pearce’s best album to date, not only for its refreshing change in sound and scope, but also for adopting a narrative best shown in the title track and “Dear Miss Loretta” that is uniquely hers and with real, personal detail to boot. Now, trim some of the fat and throw in a few more tracks that lean on narrative yet tie those main themes back together like “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” and it’d be among the absolute very best in the genre this year, but as it is, it’s damn close. I described the 29 EP as a transitional project, and while I didn’t think it’d lead to a fuller project – and nor do I think tragedy and suffering are requirements for great art, for the record – it’s still a fitting description, because this is absolutely a brand new Pearce playing to all of her strengths, and the genre is all the better for it.
- Favorite tracks: “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (w/ Ashley McBryde), “Dear Miss Loretta” (w/ Patty Loveless), “29,” “What He Didn’t Do,” “Easy Going,” “Next Girl,” “Mean It This Time,” “Day One”
- Least favorite track: “Show Me Around”