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The Dirt And The Stars (Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl)

During these months of lockdown there have been some great comforting and uplifting musical moments: small, personal and, both by nature and reality, focused on home.

Among the best have been Shelby Lynne cooking and singing, Allison Moorer in her library on a Sunday morning, Jess Klein every Tuesday night, Tift Merritt with the best nightcaps, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, singing up to a camera mounted in her piano room or kitchen, sometimes with the dog contributing thoughts (but not prayers).

They worked because without ostentatiously doing anything, and without pretending the shit hadn’t come down on us all, they gave a sense of continuity that operated as a reason for optimism. Plus they had some great songs.

In truth, we came for the songs but we stayed/returned for the human touch and the truth. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s The Dirt And The Stars works in much the same way. And without a dodgy internet connection!

It doesn’t act as if we can close our eyes and act like all the bad stuff isn’t there: two songs in particular are directed at the core of our problems, one choppy honky tonk called American Stooge - and if you need help deciphering that please stay after class – and as much as Chapin Carpenter does anger, it’s there.

However, in the easiness of her delivery, the warmth of her voice, the gentle envelopment of the arrangements and most of all, the acuity of her wisdom, she makes you feel like the shit isn’t the only thing around us.

In what might appear from its title to be a straightforward come-to-mummy moment, It’s Ok To Feel Sad, Chapin Carpenter shows that self-deception isn’t necessary to believe, and hiding away isn’t necessary to thrive.

Sure, “It’s ok to be tired, fuck all the excuses/Whatever’s required, there’s no day that’s useless,” and she sees the “hollow and empty/What’s lost and undone”. But maybe that’s a step on the way. Maybe “Instead of breaking, you’re hoping/That the cracks beginning to spread/Is the way you break open”. And if we open? Could it be, with a nod to Leonard Cohen, that we see more? For “If you let everything in/The shadows as well as the light/How else could you know you’re alright?/How else would you know?”

There’s a similar acceptance of the grain and the gravel in All Broken Hearts Break Differently, a song with an atmosphere that suggests the thickness of a Daniel Lanois recording but actually arrives with the space of a Joe Henry job. And in the slow curl of Everybody’s Got Something, whose arrangement feels like the song absorbs rather than accumulates its elements as we progress, Chapin Carpenter recognises the blows, acknowledges the hurt, but offers the small certainty that it ends. Everything ends. And “someday I’ll feel like myself again/It takes some time”.

Memory plays a part in the comforting and the recovery, or the patience to wait for both. As does music. In the gentle weave of the simple Bacharach-ian Old D-35, a succession of images work like photographs recalling the unfrozen past, in much the same way the sound of someone’s D-35 guitar resonates through the halls of her mind. And even though now, unlike the younger versions in the photos, “we know how much we’d lose”, the future feels a bit more secure for that hold on the past.

The messages coalesce in the title track, the album’s closer, which takes on the form of a country soul musing that opens up to a rich and full band moment whose guitar solo blossoms wonderfully. Here the vision springs from an attempt to conjure up a distant past when as a 17-year-old, the song’s narrator unknowingly found answers, maybe even wisdom, in an unlikely source.

“I can’t hear what you just said/Over the radio/Wild wild horses/Everything you’ll every know/Is in the choruses,” she sings. Everything being what “made you whole .., broke your heart … called you by your soul … and piece by piece took you apart”.

If you’re going to take advice from anyone, find solace in someone, it might as well be someone who speaks with heart and soul. Who would argue that, as the last line of the album has it, “everywhere we’ll ever go/Is in the choruses”? Not me.


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