A new album from Mary Gauthier is exactly the type of comedown I didn’t know I needed. Describing her work and general sound has always been fairly easy. She’s a terrific songwriter who has typically leaned on the folksier side of Americana and can occasionally demand a lot of the audience with her contemplative, reflective – dare I even say sleepy – approach to songwriting. But she’s also always been the sort of writer who can get strikingly intimate in a way that comes across as straightforward and relatable – especially with a craggy vocal style that feels lived-in regarding the experiences shared – in a way standing out from the crowd even with a familiar acoustic-based singer-songwriter sound.
And when it comes to her latest album, Dark Enough to See the Stars, that all very much holds true. It’s exactly the sort of slow-burn you might expect from her, albeit filtered through the lens of the pandemic and the loss of friends and musical icons in John Prine and Nanci Griifth, among others, in a way that still feels distanced enough to operate on its own, for better and worse. On one hand, there’s very a much a stream-of-consciousness feel to the songwriting structure and flow here, where all of these songs feel like they could stand as loose snapshots capturing the same kind of different emotions from one scene to another – from love and thankfulness to sorrow and loss and everything else in between.
And like I said in my review of “Amsterdam,” sometimes that even means the songwriting style operates within something of a checklist structure. But like I also said, Gauthier is the sort of intimately detailed writer who can add actual weight and value to those loose sentiments, where against the minor, windswept rollick of that aforementioned track, there’s a sense of warmth and optimism for what’s ahead in having a partner to rely on even in dark times … you know, amidst the mundanity of the day-to-day details of everything else occurring in the world. And for as slow and demanding as this album can feel by its end, you also know it’s because Gauthier will mine every detail she can from relatable scenes, like the harrowing immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one on “How Could You Be Gone” that only coalesces into further grief and feels strikingly relatable; it’s drawn-out, but that’s part of the point in establishing the mixed, bittersweet emotions of life.
With that said, this is also an album that can play to broad strokes in the actual thematic constructions at points, which doesn’t so much matter when assessing each track on its own merit, but does mean that the album can scan as a bit one-note at points; I mean, the first three tracks alone center around being thankful to have a partner to lean on in an ever-changing world, which makes a track like “Thank God For You” feel redundant and unnecessary by the time it comes around, especially with its clunkier flow.
But again, it’s also an album that aims to process its grief by valuing what’s still here, which is why I love the starry-eyed wonder of “Amsterdam,” the muted optimism of the title track, the strikingly beautiful and frank “About Time,” and the blast of harmonica that rolls off the road-weary “Truckers & Troubadours” – where being “slaves to the wanderlust” pretty accurately sums up this album’s restlessness to push on even in (or especially in) times of strife. Again, for as straightforward as it all is in its execution, it is the sort of slow-burn that can be hard to take in without feeling a bit sleepy or one-dimensional at points. But like with any great singer-songwriter record, give it the chance to sink its hooks in and there’s plenty of nuggets to appreciate – the two big highlights for me being “Amsterdam” and “Truckers & Troubadours.” There’s certainly a crushing weight and darkness characterizing this album … but also a muted beauty worth finding and appreciating, all the same.
- Favorite tracks: “Amsterdam,” “Truckers & Troubadours,” “How Could You Be Gone,” “Dark Enough to See the Stars,” “About Time”
- Least favorite track: “Thank God For You”