COURTNEY MARIE ANDREWS
Old Flowers (Fat Possum/Inertia)
I LIKE A GOOD VITRIOLIC post-breakup album as much as the next person. Well, unless that next person is Natalie Mains’ ex (have you heard The Chicks’ record? Ooh boy!). The hurt is real, the payback visceral, the satisfaction shared, with country and soul music in their sometimes deceptively less brutal fashion doing this very well.
Courtney Marie Andrew, whose new album could be a rock fan’s ideal country record or a soul fan’s gateway to folk country, gets this. Has been in the vicinity and shared the feeling. But she isn’t playing that game.
Maybe it’s because her songs feel grounded in both earth and air: the Tapestry-elegant piano ballad Together Or Alone aches without fuss; the way the night time solemnity of Break The Spell suggests a pared back Daniel Lanois atmosphere and Carnival Dream has the heft and sternness of the McGarrigle Sisters; or how Ships In The Night pitches the picture of a hunched-over-the-electric-piano Donny Hathaway.
Or maybe she’s just not built for the game. (As she discussed in this interview from earlier this year.)
Old Flowers is a break-up record, one chronicling a relationship which essentially took her through her 20s, and was already the subject of her 2016 record, Honest Life, the album that was written after a temporary separation and an extended solo stay in Europe.
Old Flowers is also a record expanding on some of the themes explored in her socially-conscious 2018 album, May Your Kindness Remain, which cast an eye on an America that looks like the one painted by cut-price demagogues (and urban resisters frustrated by those they believe succumb to the mythologists) but has more shading than either side acknowledges.
Yet Old Flowers doesn’t go down either obvious route, and the explanation may best be understood by two key words from those preceding albums: honest and kindness. There’s an openness of heart about the relationship - his flaws, hers, and the lives they grew into – that leaves room for thoughtfulness and the memory of joy.
“If I could go back now/I’d pick you wildflowers/Tie them in burlap string/Tell you what you mean to me,” Andrews sings in the gorgeous, weeping pedal steel waltz, Burlap String, which somehow evokes for me an alternative universe where Linda Ronstadt replaced Mick Jagger on Sticky Fingers.
That doesn’t pretend there weren’t reasons, that there weren’t causes, that the woman she is couldn’t stay like the girl she was.
“Why, why do I believe/Each and every trick you have hiding up your sleeve?,” she says in Break The Spell, that ends with that plea; “I’m not your object to break/You can’t hold me like I’m yours/I don’t see you that way anymore,” she says in the title track, which makes the telling, ‘it’s too late baby now, it’s too late’ point that “You can’t water old flowers/Our love is gone”.
However, the end to such a life-defining relationship is not done with a cut-and-forget efficiency. As if it were that easy! “I’ve been trying each day to forget /How sweet life was when we first met/Then I lose you each night in this carnival dream/and when I wake up all I find are memories/Big crowds, laughter, and games/I may never be the same.”
Nor does an end necessarily signal a beginning. While she declares herself someone who wants “ … to get hurt/Let my guard down/Fall in love”, in another song she questions whether it would be smart for someone else to go there with her. “What would you say if I told you/You’re my last thought at the end of the each night/Would you believe me or would you even reply? … I am a loner, I am stubborn/Can you handle this world I live in? I know I can’t change, but for you I’d compromise.”
In all of these songs, whether she’s certain of the past or troubled by what it might portend, glad to have been in that love or scared of going there again, Andrews has a way of vocally bringing everything to the table without ever showboating. It just feels right.
The easy late ‘60s country of It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault reaches a trilling moment but stops short of flying away, just as the title track grows on drama but doesn’t sink into its yawning release. In Guilty she straddles the twin poles of southern American music as if church and bar are the same, and, even in the hypnotic pull of If I Told, where there’s a definite resonance of chanson’s theatricality, Andrews still holds that centre.
So some breakups can comfort, and elevate. Who knew?