Your Life Is A Record (Warner)
Brandy Clark and producer Jay Joyce have not stinted on this follow-up to 2016’s Big Day In A Small Town, Clark’s boisterous, brilliant example of what you can do with genuinely mainstream country music that wants to be good, not just good product.
And yet this is a record defined by what isn’t there.
What isn’t there is much in the way of prominent electric guitars and overly synthesised studio sounds, or those thwack drums which make the most of the long-running trend to compress everything to sound “immediate” and leaping out at you. The kind of modern production which sounds just fine heard through make-do earplug or a portable speaker you run your phone through when you want to go “big”, but squeezes the life out of everything when played through even a halfway decent system.
Perversely perhaps after saying that, the other thing which isn’t there on Clark’s third album is any sense of an introspective singer/songwriter or rootsy Americana album, the kind of direction which would earn Clark a greater rep as a songwriter in some quarters because earthier is almost by default more “real” and more respectable.
On Your Life Is A Record there’s a full band, there’s strings, there’s brass, there’s Clark’s voice holding almost all the middle ground, and oddly enough there’s a definite feel of the pop scene of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I’m thinking post-breakdown Beach Boys, pre-Africa Paul Simon (Apologies) and peak period Carpenters (the sweet soul of Love Is A Fire).
It feels full, arrangements making complete use of the space with those strings and brass deployed as equal partners not just sweeteners, but the balance is maintained so that you’ll find a banjo or flute emerging from the background in unexpected company during the skippity Long Walk, the suggestion of some hokey (but still apt) organic riverside sounds and oddball windy omnichord in Bigger Boat, or vibes lightly colouring The Past Is The Past.
And yes that is Randy Newman in amused duet with Clark on Bigger Boat, a state of the world critique which though written by Clark and Adam Wright feels like a cross between Newman and Lyle Lovett. Which also makes it a candidate for a very adult version of Toy Story where you can get away with you’ve-not-got-a-friend-in-me lines like “We’re springing a leak, we’re coming apart/We’re on the Titanic, but we think it’s the ark” as you sing in bright colours, sharp outlines and cancer-spawning fabric.
Another step away this album makes from its predecessors – 2013’s 12 Stories and Big Day In A Small Town – is that the thematic connections of those two collections, are loosened. Rather than tales sprung from a common home, these are stories which range from the quasi-political to the ultra-personal, Clark’s ability to take well worn angles and lines and make them feel rooted in something real still evident, even if the sharpness of Big Day’s observations have been muted some.
That said, Pawn Shop, a pair of stories about practicality winning over dreaming in the flat light of a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue, is a fine example of that cliché-into-truth skill of hers. And there’s a nice extended metaphor, subtext and wry humour, in the clapped out auto descriptions in Bad Car.
What is a little more prominent this time are stories of busted hearts and abandoned relationships that seem to come from more than fiction, the personal stakes of Clark’s own life seeping into the worlds she’s creating.
Take the similarly aligned songs, Apologies and Who You Thought I Was, which sit next to each other in the running order. The narrator swept away by love’s failure in Who You Thought I Was, talks about the others she dreamt of being when she was younger (Elvis, a cowboy, a circus performer, permanently 18) but wishes now to cast aside characters for character, declaring she wants to be honest, to be worth the love, to be “the me I should’ve been when we were together … who you thought I was”.
Apologies continues that idea, the fault now in the lie lived by her, not the lie wished into being by her departed lover. “I’m sorry I’m not who I was when I met you,” she says, “Sorry trust turned into lyin’/Sorry laughter turned into cryin/Sorry won’t dry those tears … but I’m tryin’.”
In hope more than expectation, and not really much hope at all, this spurned woman floats the chance for recovery as a way of healing herself. “If you can forgive me maybe I can forgive me.”
By the time another (the same?) break up is canvassed in Who Broke Whose Heart, the jolly mid-70s Elton John and Kiki Dee spring of the brass-and-strings allows the tone of regrets to soften, and maybe even promise something better as Clark sings – with nary a glance at the radio censors – “who really cares about the wheres and why … All I know is I loved you, and you loved me/So fuck the rest”.
I may miss the exuberance of Big Day In A Small Town, and my first reaction to Your Life Is A Record may have been a strong resistance to what felt smoothed out, but I’ve come around to liking how Brandy Clark keeps finding ways to make mainstream not just another way to say wide appeal, but something that is not a dirty word.