Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 2016 album The Things That We Are Made Of signalled a rejuvenation – of spirit and musical excellence. And in Deep Deep Down Heart she bares her emotions as intensely as in any of her previous best work.
The Nashville producer David Cobb, best known for his work with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, gives Carpenter’s haunted, haunting mood swings room to breathe with a stripped-down studio treatment far removed from the orchestral experiment of Songs From The Movie, described by the artist as ‘leaving my comfort zone’ and ‘a life-transforming experience’. Some of us prefer her back in that comfort zone; there is enough discomfort in the subject matter.
Carpenter’s songs have frequently embraced long journeys and solitude, regret and doubt, but here uncertainty again gives way to hope and an acceptance of the things we are made of.
Now these wheels go so fast
There is nothing here to hold;
I keep pushing back the past
So that the future can unfold.
I guess the best of my mistakes
Show me all that I don't know.
But this strange kind of ache
Never seems to let me go
“Working with Dave felt great from the first day of our sessions,” said the five-times Grammy Award winner on her website. Unusually, she yielded her customary control of production. “He is always willing to try something new, believes that ‘yes’ is the only answer, and surrounds himself with wonderfully talented and generous musicians; by the end of the project, I felt as if I was a part of a new family.”
The feeling was mutual. “I wanted to work with Mary Chapin because very few people can cut with words like she can,” said Cobb. “She’s an absolute poet and legend.” The sparse blend of acoustic guitar, piano, bass and Mellotron is a perfect showcase for the storyteller’s intimate style.
I was first introduced to Carpenter’s work by a former colleague following the release of Stones In The Road in 1994. The magnificent title track, recalling as a youngster the assassination of Robert F Kennedy amid the turbulence of the Sixties, had first been recorded by an extremely grateful Joan Baez two years earlier. When my work friend left for pastures new, we presented him with a T-shirt bearing a verse of the song on the back:
The starving children have been replaced by souls out on the street
We give a dollar when we pass, and hope our eyes don't meet
We pencil in, we cancel out, we crave the corner suite
We kiss your ass, we make you hold, we doctor the receipt
Deep Deep Down Heart, along with the latest album’s opener Something Tamed Something Wild, comes close to competing with the essential listening of Stones In The Road, I Am A Town and Goodnight America. Its strong melody and beautiful words are a powerful combination. Since Stones In The Road, we have grown older with Carpenter and shared her anxieties. But she always seems to find her way through a seemingly bleak backdrop with that breathy yet warm, mellow vocal.
The album is a tribute to Carpenter’s former producer, lead guitarist and old flame John Jennings, who died in 2015. Listen to I Am A Town for an exquisite example of his guitar work. Jennings once described Carpenter’s voice as ‘an invitation to intimacy’. Deep Deep Down Heart is an invitation that cannot be refused.