It’s easy to take an artist like Caroline Spence for granted. At a glance, she makes albums that are often very ethereal in their style and presentation … but could also be described as slow burns lacking in momentum – the sort of indie folk-leaning country that can err on the sleepy side of that sound. And it’s not like we’re in short supply of artists making music like that, for better and worse.
Dig deeper into the writing, though, and you’ve handily got one of the most overlooked songwriters working within the genre today, as while her projects do take time to sink in, they really latch their hooks in when they do – particularly 2017’s Spades and Roses and 2019’s Mint Condition.
With latest album True North, that all very much holds true here, even if this is an even more demanding listen that doesn’t quite carry over the greater attempt at stylistic diversity from Mint Condition. Speaking even as someone with a greater tolerance for this style, I admit it took some time for this album to unlock. But now that it has, like with every Spence album, it’s worth the time and patience to take in the finer emotive details.
Granted, instrumentation and production is the easiest starting point here, because like with past Spence albums, the tempos are overall fairly slow, and the atmospheric production certainly contributes to that slower pace. The melodies are often clear but spare, occasionally lacking a greater foundation to hold it all together better. And aside from the slighter more raucous, darker groove driving “Icarus,” this is an album where the instrumental highlights are there, but all the more subtle. Part of this has to do with Spence’s more willowy, husky delivery akin to Lori McKenna, which is soft-spoken but certainly emotive throughout, especially on an album with this much wide open space.
But what I think this album does better than past Spence albums is command a greater sense of tone in the presentation. I already highlighted the rounded haze and brighter spaciousness of the keys driving a lot of what I love about “Clean Getaway” when I reviewed it, and it’s that same ethereal shimmer that drives opener “Mary Oliver,” as well; seriously, give these melodies time to sink in and they absolutely will after the album ends. Of course, the country fan in me also appreciates the subtle addition of pedal steel to better flesh out these melodies on tracks like the gorgeously devastating “Blue Sky Rain” and “I Forget the Rest.”
Granted, this is also an album that could have eased up on the reverb at points when the more organic fit often works better anyway, even if it still feels like the right choice in establishing intimacy for a track like “I Know You Know.” But that doesn’t apply to the clunkier “There’s Always Room” with that oddly abrupt ending that I thought concluded the album better with “I Forget the Rest” anyway.
But if there’s a reason for a more downbeat listen, it’d absolutely come through in the writing, which is another project to feel inspired by the weight of the past few years, but also nails the stark loneliness of the content all the better because of it. And in thinking back to Mint Condition, another album that felt like Spence was in search of personal clarity from past mistakes made, True North feels more like the aftermath of that search – where she didn’t get to make that “clean getaway” after all due to a lot of the work coming in facing those problems head-on, rather than running away from them in search of an answer that doesn’t exist out there. In a way, it’s almost therapeutic in a way that reminds me of the transition from Jason Isbell’s Southeastern to Something More than Free, where old demons are silenced but never killed and the subtle loneliness and weight of trying to improve one’s self from within feels in vain because of it.
And the thing is, Spence is very much aware of that how that can be a harrowing arc to take in again from her; she outright says that this record may not be for everyone afraid to confront that on opener “Mary Oliver.” And indeed, that self-awareness of her art as a contributing factor is a nice touch on that song, but it’s that feeling of knowing old traumas can always resurface that adds a greater weight and lived-in feel to even the more straightforward love songs here, like having a partner who can relate to that feeling on “I Know You Know.” Time will heal any wound, but only if one makes the most of it to their advantage, which is easier said than done. It’s why I like that even those love songs can carry their own dramatic stakes on that relatable basis alone, like knowing there’s grief to work out on “Scale These Walls” but hoping so desperately that both partners could just drop their guards and forget about it … which isn’t always possible, hence why a breakup track like “Blue Sky Rain” hits so much harder in context.
But the relationships are always based on camaraderie as well, which is why I love the warmth she brings in offering reassurance to a friend fighting a similar battle on the title track nestled against the firmer acoustics and rounded bass that carries over into “The Next Good Time” – I certainly enjoy it more than the more conventional life advice offered on “The Gift” that feels more distanced and less personal, which also applies to “Walk the Walk.” As a whole, though, this is an easy album to hear based on how shimmering and ethereal it is in its presentation, but a much more difficult one to actually take in, especially for those not accustomed to this sort of slower-paced singer-songwriter territory. But for those willing to put in the effort, Spence will meet you there with a rewarding listen, and another fantastic slow burn worthy of praise.
- Favorite tracks: “Clean Getaway,” “True North,” “Blue Sky Rain,” “Mary Oliver,” “Icarus,” “The Next Good Time,” “I Forget the Rest,” “I Know You Know”
- Least favorite track: “There’s Always Room”
- Favorite individual moment: The chorus of “Clean Getaway” – it’s just so lush.