Album Review- Lori McKenna’s “1988”

There are the songs of Lori McKenna, and then there are the songs of everyone else in country music. Lori McKenna songs should constitute their own subgenre in the way she’s so deftly captures feelings and sentiments we all experience, but often fail to find the words to express, along with how she says the things we all need to hear, but don’t know where else to turn to hear them.

Lori McKenna is singular in her capability to encapsulate life lessons and communicate them in three-minute intervals in a way that entire volumes of self-help material can’t achieve. The sage nature of her songs is something that artists from the most grassroots of non-commercial Americana, to some of the highest grossing acts in the mainstream of country have come to partake in, and to the benefit of the entirety of the country and roots world.

Once again, Lori McKenna displays this magnanimous mastery of American songwriting in 10 new tracks compiled under the heading 1988. With an ease that must make her fellow songwriters both enraged with jealousy and supremely inspired, this mother of five from Massachusetts makes quick work of sowing profundities that make life’s challenges more digestible, and the entirety of living more enjoyable to experience.

Similar to some of her other recent works, Lori McKenna explores the quantity of time and the process of aging in 1988. The album is named after the year she married her husband at the age of 19. McKenna’s mother died when she was just seven, and she first met her husband in the third grade. She started writing songs as lullabies to her children. It’s all of this history that swells to underpin her music in ways you can hear and feel, and is one of the reasons she’s now racked up a dozen Grammy nominations, and two awards.

It’s the maternal wisdom of Lori McKenna’s music that makes it so deep and resonant, but since it’s served so direct and plainspoken, there’s no mysteries to unravel, making it incredibly effective as an antidote for life’s woes. All you have to do is listen, and the words do the rest. Where so much of society is in a rush to hide its age, McKenna embraces it right off the bat in “The Old Woman In Me.” Where so many are so quick to judge and lay blame, McKenna is the one worried about “Letting People Down.”

Though McKenna does work with some other songwriters on the album like Hillary Lindsey, Luke Laird, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Stephen Wilson Jr., it’s arguably the solo-written songs such as “Growing Up,” “Wonder Drug,” and “Letting People Down” that impact the most with their fiercely personal aspect. How many people haven’t tried to love someone out of their addiction issues to no avail?

1988 isn’t especially country or especially anything else. It’s a songwriter’s album, and producer Dave Cobb makes sure to center the songs and make everything else feel like background noise. But the music of the album is pleasing nonetheless, and though she’s a songwriter first, McKenna also brings a gratifying voice to her songcraft.

In an era, and in a moment where it seems like the most terse, divisive, outspoken, and ostentatious voices are the ones that receive most all of the attention, Lori McKenna is the soothing, calming, rational voice that this moment needs, and that we all need individually. This is what she delivers with 1988.


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