OPERATING FROM THE CENTRE, usually described as “the sensible centre” in case there was any doubt as to what is valued by those who advocate for it, is considered the best if not only way to be elected and stay in power for politicians (and media) in most western democracies.
Avoiding being too radical a change agent at either end of the spectrum means you don’t lose people scared by the rapidity or the rapacity of reforms, that you can’t be demonised by those at the edges of thought as “too” this or that, and it leaves you room to be all things to all people if you can tailor your message for each audience you address.
Do this and re-election is yours. Easy. Incremental. Marketable. Long-term. Though, as columnist/commentator Sean Kelly has been discussing in recent months in the context of the “sensible centre” Albanese government, what happens when sensible and incremental translates to inactive and barely noticeable? What about when being set on not scaring the horses becomes fearing doing anything which contains any kind of risk?
One more question: if there is success/failure does it come by differentiating yourself in degrees and pulling people along gently until they celebrate those degrees as gems, or by being so indistinguishable as to become the norm and those people start thinking that exchanging you for the other lot won’t hurt really so why not?
Which brings us to country music, in particular the mainstream part of it, or what you might call the sensible centre of sensible centre popular music. It’s a territory where being enough like everyone else to essentially be mistaken for everyone else can see you infiltrate the commercial high ground, but where being like everyone else can see you disappear into the background too.
There are far too many of the indistinguishable-but-successful to list here, though if you want a few and have a high tolerance for the equivalent of sliced sandwich meat, just check out the CMT playlist, or the winners list at the CMAs and Golden Guitars. And of course, there are those who refused to play in this identikit pool at all, staying closer to the fringe than the centre to make some of the best music around, and you’ll find a good number of those looking through the archives of this website.
In some ways more intriguing than both of those groups are the artists who aim straight at the centre while trying to smuggle in sharper ideas – lyrically and musically – inside their seemingly friction-free material. Maybe more with hope than expectation it’s a stubborn refusal to cede the middle ground to the terminally bland.
Locally, it’s visible in people like Felicity Urquhart and Raechel Whitchurch; for years in the States it’s been people like Gretchen Peters, Matraca Berg and Brandy Clark. And Lori McKenna, importantly, like the others, not some 20something easily buffeted by demands of acceptance/reward but a Grammy winner with several decades at this lark (and I wonder if this is perhaps just as important: like most of the others, someone secure in a solid long-term relationship), is bidding for the same.
Her 12th album, 1988 often casts its eyes back: to that year, in which she married her husband; to the times when dreaming felt legitimate; to reminders of why “getting out” of town (small or otherwise; and not at all like anything Jason Aldean’s fevered conservatism now celebrates) felt necessary to some and dangerous to others. Not as a bit of wishful reimagining but as context for the woman she is today, and the world around her today.
There are victims of Percocet and Adderall and maybe something older (“I remember you innocent/Now all you are is bones and skin/With your father’s temperament/Still paying off that original sin”), the left behind and the escapees (“You were taillights on the highway, flying/Searching for something nobody ever, ever finds/And I’d go back if I had my way, and I’d make/Those demons that were haunting you wish they had never tried”), and the once-loving but stifled (“Would it kill you to be happy?/Cause trying to make you happy/Trying to make you happy is killing me”).
There are partners and parents with self-doubt (“I fall short, I always fall behind/I hate letting people down …and I do it all the time”), parents and partners with no hope (“Your dad sat on an upside-down bucket in the garage watching westerns/With the sound turned down, a cold beer in his left hand/Your mother called him in for dinner then ate alone”) and parents and partners with earned wisdom (“But if you only get one thing that’s a given/If you only get one thing that’s a given/I hope you have happy children”).
While the familiar details/tropes of smalltown songwriting appear, from Sunday morning best clothes and “an old white church and a Dairy Freeze” to making out in back seats and dropping into pink laundromats, McKenna keeps finding little nuggets of imagery or insight to shift the conversation. It’s the extra distance the formula writers don’t bother to go.
In The Tunnel she talks about “The smell of summer water with nowhere to go/Hanging like vampires under the road”, Growing Up has the punch in “Now you’re 6 years sober taking your mother to her treatments/She says she wants to see the old house one more time/And you can’t go back any more than she can go back/If you said you didn’t miss it, you’d be lying”, and there is something quite potent in the battered simplicity of this line from Killing Me, “I am your shelter, my love is steady/But damn my heart is getting tired”.
If this review seems to have focused almost exclusively on the lyrics, it’s not accidental. There’s nothing wrong with the music on 1988: it measures its ground on the Americana crossroads of regulation country, country-influenced rock and a kind of earthy pop, and it does it with skill.
As produced by Americana’s go-to man, Dave Cobb, Happy Children and Wonder Drug are at opposite ends of tempo and dusted with organ or electric guitar, but each is driven by punchy acoustic guitars. Days Are Honey has a chorus which stands to attention to start and then turns its face away from easy triumph to end, while Letting People Down nods to Stevie Nicks in the verses and Tom Petty in the chorus. And while the title track gets closest to McKenna’s avowed intention to make a ‘90s revival blend of Sheryl Crow and The Gin Blossoms, Growing Up feels like a blend of Gretchen Peters and John Mellencamp.
They are all fine songs and contain absolutely no excuse not to be played on radio or heard out of someone’s pickup truck or city small car, while not in any meaningful way challenging ears familiar with these patterns.
You could argue that this is a sensible way of appealing to the centre at the same time as insinuating some tougher/smarter ideas, while I might lean towards being underwhelmed by the ambition while admiring the deeper intentions. But like any decent centrist government, we can hope it sneaks past some inherent conservatism and does its most effective work over time.