Album Review – Lori McKenna’s “The Balladeer”

Lori McKenna long since outed herself as one of the premier songwriters of our era, if not the premier songwriter, so much so that she can go both toe to toe with the top wordsmiths of Americana, while minting premier success with some of the most defining songs in mainstream country of our time. She is the mother hen of country songwriting, the measuring stick all other wordsmiths measure themselves against, a one woman wrecking crew who can challenge anyone who believes they can’t be rendered weepy and reminiscent from a country song, and deliver a resounding win.

When regarding her solo career that now spans some eleven albums over 20 years—from boutique labels to Warner Music Nashville, and now her own label distributed through Thirty Tigers—the output is just as impressive, even if not as celebrated as the success she’s had writing songs for others. But in this current era of McKenna working with producer Dave Cobb starting with 2016’s The Bird & The Rifle, on to 2018’s The Tree, and now with this new one called The Balladeer, she’s found an entirely new level of critical acclaim where it’s not just her songs, but her voice and performance that is being appreciated, and awarded.

If anything, The Balladeer takes lofty expectations already reaching towards the unattainable, and still impresses with what might be the high water mark of McKenna’s career so far. It would be hard to impossible for her to surpass what she’s been doing already with writing songs. But on this new record, McKenna and Dave Cobb labor not just to present stellar songs that work all by themselves in a way that is flattering and reverent, but to discover the perfect sound for each track. They’re more explorative than ever, letting some of the outtros elongate, and relying a lot on piano to paint the melody as opposed to guitar. This results in a landmark record not just for Lori McKenna, but for 2020.

Once again, when you want or need to turn to music to reset your mood or world view, refocus around the real priorities of life, and put your petty concerns into perspective, Lori McKenna is the medicine you reach for. The wisdom and calming attitude flowing from these works is as potent as Asian proverbs. Along the way McKenna also proves that you don’t need to be broken and destitute to pen songs or mine inspiration. It’s the calming order in which she presents the cycles of life that decorate us all in poeticism and importance.

Music is supposed to be a young person’s game. A mother of five now in her 50’s who got married at 19 and never left her sleepy hometown in Massachusetts is not someone with a relevant perspective, or so they tell us. But try standing behind that argument when you hear the song “Marie,” which mirror’s McKenna’s own story of losing her mother when she was seven, or the sense of parenthood that cuts so deep in “When You’re My Age,” or “Till You’re Grown,” or the story about knowing your hometown front and back found in “This Town is a Woman.”

The sentiments in “Uphill” can be understood by anyone. And even those stuck in perpetual ‘glory days’ syndrome who often make up so much of the mainstream country demographic obsessed with how their best days were in the past can relate to the song “Stuck In High School.” But the magnanimous gift of Lori McKenna’s music is the message that life never loses its meaning and magic. It just morphs into other places, and taking time to appreciate these passing moments is what keeps the richness of life around well past young adulthood.

There are good songs, and then there are Lori McKenna songs. She just resides on a different plane. There isn’t a dud in the bunch, or a dry eye left whenever one of her records is cued up. But The Balladeer does feel even more exceptional than normal. Working in unique chord changes and creating ambient moments in a song like “The Dream,” or collaborating with her fellow Love Junkies Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey in “When You’re My Age” without impinging on those more pure, singer/songwriter moments in songs like “Uphill” or “Two Birds” make The Balladeer a remarkable record, even for Lori McKenna.


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