You’d think after a career record like 2017’s Trophy we’d have heard more from Sunny Sweeney much sooner, especially with a clear distance from her major label days and a refinement in sound that made for one of the best albums of the entire decade. But that’s not always how it works, and five years later and now twice divorced, she finally makes her return … with an album steeped in a no-frills, Texas honky tonk sound and bullseye-targeted heartbreak, and it’s pretty much the natural progression you’d expect from her; it’s like she never really left for that long after all, then.
Granted, even despite my love for all of her work, I did have some initial reservations about seeing Paul Cauthen’s involvement with this. As an extension of what I noted in my review of “A Song Can’t Fix Everything,” too, I’m not wild about the overly gratuitous vocal echoes slathered all over an album that gets drowned too much in its atmosphere at points. But really, that’s about where my quibbles begin and end, because right away from the ‘70s-inspired backbeat of “Tie Me Up,” you know you’re going to get a quality sound from Sweeney herself. And, though I will say this lacks some of the standout moments of her last few albums, with a natural extension of an already great foundation, Married Alone makes for another easy winner in my favorite albums of the year thus far.
Of course, like with most of Sweeney’s projects, I have trouble contextualizing what makes this great beyond that, outside of being another hardscrabbled journey through heartbreak and even finding love again on “Still Here,” and just being a damned great, hardbitten country project, to boot. I’ve always assigned the bulk of the credit to Sweeney herself, who carries the sort of weathered bluntless in her tone to make some of the seedier hookups in “Tie Me Up” and the galloping barn-burner of “Someday You’ll Call My Name” sound fun … and more than a little daring. But it’s that same tired frustration with misspent expectations toward love that lends itself well to tracks where there’s a lot more history involved, like when the years pile up but the love grows weaker on “Easy As Hello,” carried by that great burnished midtempo groove – and then you get a great one-two punch with a title track right afterward that plays into similar territory but shows what can happen when goodbye is even closer and partners are pushed to the absolute edge; the actual portrait of why goodbye isn’t nearly as easy as hello, in other words.
It’s also why “A Song Can’t Fix Everything” sounds a lot better in context, a mid-album anchoring point that, sure, is a bit meta with its conceit of how music can heal even if it can’t repair one’s self. But with the right amount of detail behind it, it’s more than just a platitude. And considering the second half finds itself in post-breakup territory, once again Sweeney is adept at capturing the different feelings and emotions associated with it, whether through her writing or delivery – or both. The overall flow of “Want You to Miss Me” can feel a bit choppy at points, but there is something to be said for when you yourself can make all the needless rebounds you like … only to just hope it’s not in vain and that your former partner is jealous and misses you too; a selfish little track, but in the best way. “Wasting One On You” is probably the closest we get to a jump away from her usual sound, but between the solid lounge vibe and the well-balanced horns, it’s just such a smooth hook-up track that works regardless. And that old-school flair feeds in nicely to the equally soulful, self-deprecating “Fool Like Me,” too.
Even compared to earlier tracks like “Tie Me Up” and “Someday You’ll Call My Name,” equally swampy and seedy tracks like “All I Don’t Need” and “Leaving Is My Middle Name” are a bit more unsure of themselves – hell, with the former track that’s the general conceit – and it’s why I think, above all else, the dramatic stakes run deeper here than they have on any past Sweeney project, especially when it ends with what at first appears to be an out-of-place track of love and devotion and partners that actually stuck it out together on “Still Here” … until it doesn’t pull any punches in noting that their journey has had its low points as well, but also notes that no journey to that metaphorical finish line is going to be perfect. Those that can stick it out are the lucky ones, in a way; it reminds me of Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” in that sense, another love song that can nevertheless be devastating in its subtext. That’s not to say it’s the answer this album needs – songs like the title track and “Easy As Hello” can prove that sticking together over just ending it can leave scars that will never heal. But it is a nice counterbalance, all the same.
All of that is to say … yeah, Sunny Sweeney delivered yet again here. Again, I’m not always wild about some of the production choices that can feel atmospheric without capturing the actual lushness of her previous project. And it might even be fair to say she’s playing in fairly comfortable territory for her with a lot of this material – really, “Tie Me Up” just sort of sounded like a lesser “Better Bad Idea” to me. But when’s she capable of cutting even deeper than others might prefer (or knows when to pick similar material that does) and can follow it all through right until the very end, even with a five-year wait and an album mostly confined to loneliness, she’s still at the top of her game.
- Favorite tracks: “Easy As Hello,” “Married Alone” (feat. Vince Gill), “Someday You’ll Call My Name,” “A Song Can’t Fix Everything” (feat. Paul Cauthen), “Wasting One On You,” “Fool Like Me,” “All I Don’t Need,” “Still Here”
- Least favorite track: “Tie Me Up”