Dancing With The Beast (Scarlet Letter)
Some actions are at the very least unfair to ordinary others, if not outright outrageous excess. In football parlance it might be like putting Mo Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo in the same team for this Sunday’s Champion’s League final. Or maybe marrying Barack Obama to Michelle Robinson.
In this case, having Gretchen Peters, a songwriter of no little quality and success, pairing with Matraca Berg, an equally superior songwriter of often heartbreaking moments, for the opening track of the album is a double hit that is only exacerbated by including the Grammy-winning Ben Glover in the writing team.
Arguing With Ghosts has the kind of offhand elegance paired with controlled pain that Peters and Berg do so well. It flows with a slow but inexorable momentum and carries with it a sense of surety – this song will be warm, will be touching. And yet it’s also laced with a sub-note of discomfort, an implication in the melody and the voice that tears may be bitter, that you aren’t going to get to the end of this feeling settled.
Likewise the story: of seeing the familiar and the comfortable around you and wondering when did this become something you no longer want, indeed counting the days taking years to pass or the years passing in a day, and realising “I don’t know which one I hate the most”. This isn’t as easy a song as you think.
Peters sails solo, writing-wise, for pretty much the rest of the album and she is in fine form. The women of these songs are travellers and musicians, married to servicemen and alone by choice, asking questions and remembering moments. It would be patronising to see them as survivors or heroes or the like; they are just ordinary and common in their trials and choices, which is special enough.
All the stories are free of embellishments, with Peters not one for poetic flourishes, but that doesn’t mean bluntness or mere simplicity. Her lyrics feel tender right through, as if written in response to her characters, respecting their emotions – knowing their moments. And then, in something like the final song, Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea, unafraid to be of them not about them.
Similarly, musically, Peters plays it straight and quietly. The gentle tug of Say Grace, so soon after the subdued melancholy of Truckstop Angel (a song which transcends its familiar setting) is like a peaceful hymn that isn’t offering salvation but instead, a salve. The musings-out-loud of The Boy From Rye - brushed piano and barely murmuring bass, over which Peters confides - feels like it might have jostled for space on Emmylou Harris’ Stumble Into Grace (and you just know Harris, who has an uncanny ear for a song, would be a fan of Peters).
But then the starker muscularity of Disappearing Act, a low-brew country rock number that refuses to merely rock, makes a link from Rodney Crowell to Jason Isbell, much as the road-riding Wichita finds the ground between Dolly Parton and Townes Van Zandt.
Oh yes, and you’ll find a healthy dose of sensuality in the title track for good measure. It doesn’t crackle but it does smoulder.
Sounds like Peters has got a lot of bases covered. A bit of Salah and Ronaldo in one? A bit of Peters and Peters actually.