Album Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Brandy Clark’

I think Brandy Clark has struggled to capture the right atmosphere for her material.

That’s a broad statement, and I don’t mean it as a slight. If anything, her albums have always focused on crafting an experience suitable for the journey at hand, from her starkly raw, story-driven, character-focused landmark debut 12 Stories, to the more jangled, sprawling intensity and small town drama of 2016’s Big Day In a Small Town, to the dreamy, hazy journey through the aftermath of a relationship on 2020’s Your Life is A Record. For the most part, she’s delivered consistent greatness through all of them, thanks to sharp writing and a mature delivery to support it.

With that said, it is those last two records where the Joy Joyce production influence is most prominent, which I didn’t mind on Big Day in A Small Town for how snarled and nasty it could get at points. For me, however, Your Life is A Record just pulled the focus away a bit too much, and it’s always felt like Clark has tried and slightly struggled to find the right balance between all three of her studio albums.

So, the solution? Get back to the basics, with a new self-titled, Brandi Carlile-produced effort that places Clark in her rawest state since 12 Stories. I did house slight worries ahead of time with “Buried,” in that I didn’t want Clark to default to acoustic, coffeehouse folk given how much more her delivery and writing is capable of emoting. And indeed, while I am glad to hear her pivot away from the wonky theatricality that didn’t really work on her last record, I would say this album is a few sharper arrangements away from being among her absolute best.

But I’d also call it a needed return to form, where even if it still feels like Clark and Carlile are ironing out the overall sound at points, there’s a great foundation for more to come – and another great album to be found regardless. It does inspire comparisons to Your Life is a Record, though more through the introspective, relationship-based songwriting; if that album was about Clark letting the dust settle, this one is focused more on moving on and turning her viewpoint outward.

Perhaps a little looser, given that it opens with a smoldering murder ballad (and having a track called “Buried” as the follow-up is a nice, subtle choice that’s dark as hell but appreciated), but over time she digs into the hazy middle ground between moving on and being back in the race. It’s why I’ve come around to the muted restraint of “Buried” in the context of this album, trapping Clark in a darker place of insecurity and only further amplifying that feeling on, well, “Dear Insecurity.” It’s always helped that Clark is not only a strong writer, but arguably an even stronger interpreter – one who can make this material feel weathered and mature to reflect the darker reality, but also optimistic enough to move toward something better.

It’s what makes “Come Back to Me” (adapted from Keith Urban’s Fuse project, of all things) a sad anchoring point in the middle of the album, and in the middle between letting go of someone hoping they’ll come back around … while also knowing they’ll likely forge a new path and won’t be doing so, making Clark’s own journeys home right afterward through “Northwest” and “She Smoked in the House” all the more potent as her own ways of moving forward.

It’s also at this point where I’d say the album opens up more instrumentally and production-wise, too. There are some great moments in the first half, from a fantastic piano ballad in “Dear Insecurity” that receives a further upgrade from Carlile’s own vocal counterbalance, to the soft pedal steel anchoring the groove of “Come Back to Me” to let the hurt ease a little more gently. But it’s also the first half of the album that can sound a bit watery and wonky in its more restrained folk touches. That’s more of a comment on the melodic structure of “Ain’t Enough Rocks,” though the smolder does feel a bit weightless, too. But between the plucky acoustics that don’t mesh well with the canned percussion on “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her” and, again, the willowy restraint that goes a bit too far with “Buried,” there is an odd hollowness to this album at first.

But really, starting from the rollicking uptick in groove and sunny melodic burst anchoring “Northwest” that I do so love, this album opens up immensely. It reminds me almost of the ‘90s Americana style you’d hear from, say, Kim Richey or Mary Chapin Carpenter, especially when it adopts more roiling, bluesy swagger for a fantastic crescendo through the hook of “All Over Again,” or brings in those fantastic, dusty blasts of harmonica for “Best Ones.” Of course, the plucky, liquid restraint of “She Smoked in the House” is appreciated and works for me on a personal level, too, given that it’s a tribute to a grandmother no longer around; the walk through memory lane may only happen in our minds, but you’d be amazed by how certain sensors can help fill in the gaps well enough to make it feel real again.

In this context, it’s a shot of reassurance that helps lead better into one last moment of personal frustration through “All Over Again,” only to end it off with another fantastic, emotive ballad in “Take Mine,” anchored in those beautiful keys and strings. It’s not quite a happy ending, but it’s a shot in the dark at it, where Clark’s character hopes her new partner can trust her enough to embark on a new ride. I don’t know if there’s a song I love here quite as much as “Pawn Shop” from before, and again, there are still some growing pains to iron out with the sound. But between multiple highlights in “Northwest,” “All Over Again,” and “She Smoked in the House,” plus a more robust effort as a whole, I’m excited to see where this new partnership takes Clark’s sound next. She may have just found her groove.

  • Favorite tracks: “Dear Insecurity” (feat. Brandi Carlile), “Come Back to Me,” “Northwest,” “She Smoked in the House,” “All Over Again,” “Best Ones,” “Take Mine”
  • Least favorite track: “Tell Her You Don’t Love Her” (feat. Lucius)

Buy or stream the album.

3 thoughts on “Album Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Brandy Clark’

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