This is a great album that has parallels with Lucinda Williams’ double album from last year, “Down Here By The Bone”, in that it manages to hone, distill and refine all the strengths of this particular artist into one concise package with an added layer of inspiration and innovation. Gretchen has perhaps more often been thought of as a country artist with a pretty straight forward Nashville feel. There’s nothing wrong with that and she’s always pulled it off supremely well. However, for me, “Blackbirds” moves her quite a few steps closer to the classic album that I’ve always thought that she was striving towards.
The album starts off in grand style with the title track, “Blackbirds”, with a crunchy guitar riff and a dark tale of twisted families, arson, shot guns, infidelity and death. What an opener! It shows us, perhaps, that Gretchen has been listening to the doom laden stories of Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave’s “Murder Ballads”, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”. There’s references to lies, ungratefulness and deep mystery. The lyric is sketchy enough to keep you wondering what’s really going and who’s done what. Dark mystery abounds as the narrator is “the last one standing” who’ll “see you all in hell” – scary stuff.
“Pretty Things” follows with a chiming acoustic strum and a tale of falling cities, the levee breaking and disappointment. Peters’ voice is wonderful here, a sultry slur with a rippling piano adding to the beautiful melody. By the time you get to the third track “When All You Got is a Hammer” you’ll be starting to think that this is a classic record. Here we have a sad tale of a shattered army veteran trying, unsuccessfully, to adjust to real life after the slaughter he’s witnessed as he neglects everything he needs and loves as “he sleeps with one eye open and he’s as scared as hell” and wonders about the “hole you can’t fill”. It’s a stark warning about the impact that the West’s foreign adventures have in our communities – its a high price that will leave you wondering if it’s worth it. There’s some fine guitar playing too that sounds like Jason Isbell (who is credited on the sleeve).
When All You Got Is A Hammer by Gretchen Peters
The following two tracks “Everything Falls Away” and “The House on Auburn Street” alter the mood and pace of the album and bring things closer to more traditional country but they still have an edge that sets the album apart from the more usual Nashville fare. There’s still a dark undercurrent at play here as, in the latter, Peters looks back to a fire in her hometown when she was a girl. It has a sinister undertow that, like “Blackbirds”, will leave you wondering. “Jubilee ” is a sad piano based tale about loss and regret and how hard it is sometimes to leave the past behind and there’s a haunting violin floating in the background giving the whole thing a feel of a melancholic prayer.
“Black Ribbons” shows us that Gretchen is unafraid to take on the big issues and works a tragic tale into a stinging and memorable lyric. It’s about the gulf oil spill off the coast of Louisiana but shrinks the story into a dark personal tale when a local farmer loses everything’s to the black tide of oil. Instrumentally it builds through a low key opening to a wonderful coda with organ, accordion and a tight guitar solo. Lovely stuff.
“Nashville” is a heartfelt tribute to Gretchen’s adopted hometown with a tasteful dobro rolling out a wonderful lick supporting her soaring voice and a confession that “I will always love you” that is touching and moving. The real final track is “The Cure For the Pain is The Pain” where there’s no shelter from ” this hard rain” and seems to be describing the end of a life where “there ain’t no drug and there ain’t no cure to make it like it’s was before”. It’s a sad and beautiful song that acts as a fitting closer.
There’s an acoustic version of “Blackbirds” tacked on to the end that’s nice enough but doesn’t add anything to an album that’s already proved to be perhaps a career high for Gretchen. She’s on at the Sage Gateshead on 22nd March so grab a copy of this album, give it a few spins, and head on down.
Reviewer: Greg Johnson