For some, distraction and escapism are fine remedies for whatever is weighing on their mind. For the rest of us, there’s country music. There is nothing like hearing the misery and sorrows of others to make you feel less alone in your own ills. That is what country music is for. And the deeper and more vulnerable the music gets, the more healing power is imparted.
To sing and write it well, you first have to live it. By society’s cruel and arbitrary assessments—and Summer Dean’s own stock taking as articulated on this album—an unmarried child-less 40-something retired school teacher turned honky tonk singer isn’t exactly the resumé of someone setting the world on fire. But man, it sure does result in some excellent country music, and ultimately flies in the face of the idea that someone like Summer doesn’t have something of value to share with the world.
The Biggest Life is a unique album in the Summer Dean catalog in how it includes some of those hard country honky tonk songs that she’s become known for, but they’re interspersed with stripped-down and more songwriter-based songs that range from strikingly candid to delightfully corn pone. Summer challenges the listener a little bit by starting off with two slow songs. But she ultimately turns in an album that says a lot, is musically diverse while staying distinctly country, and touches the entire range of human emotions. She keeps you on your toes for sure.
Despite the sunny disposition of her first name, Summer bookends this album with the assessments of someone who feels like life has passed them by. The opening song “Big Ol’ Truck” is about waiting on someone or something to come carry her away that never arrives. The last song “Lonely Girls Lament” is a rumination on being unwed. “I don’t wear a ring or a long white veil, and the grade on my report card as a woman is a ‘fail,'” Summer sings. Good luck finding another lyric that cuts that close to the bone.
These two songs come from a handful on the album that Summer and producer Bruce Robison decided to keep super sparse so the writing comes to the forefront. This is especially favorable on the song “Other Women,” which shares multiple perspectives from females, all of which feel like the grass is greener in someone else’s shoes. In these songs, you can envision Summer Dean sitting on her porch, singing and writing songs almost more for herself than for an audience—more like therapy sessions as opposed to songwriting ones. These are the songs many songwriters write, but are too afraid to share because they’re so personal.
But this album isn’t all weepers. That back porch acoustic solo style is also brought to the excellent song “Baling Wire” which is hilarious and wise all at the same time. Summer’s decidedly “country” perspective on life colors all of her songs with an appealing charm. And don’t worry, those Grade A honky tonk songs she’s know for also make an appearance. This includes the boot-stopping and two-stepping “Might Be Getting Over You,” and the cleverly-written “Clean Up Your Act If You Want To Talk Dirty to Me.”
You can tell just by some of Summer’s song titles like “She’s in His Arm, but I’m in the Palms of His Hand” that she’s studied all the old classic country songs and how they operate, and then used that knowledge to write a few of her own that could slide right into the catalog of Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette, and nobody would be the wiser.
And even though many of the songs of The Biggest Life convey a rather gloomy outlook, a few songs—including the one the title is derived from—take a more rosy assessment. It’s as if Summer first has to illustrate the misery to let you know that so much of the happiness in life has to do with your perspective on it. “The Sun’s Gonna Rise Again” is an ode to positivity, delivered once again with Summer’s signature country-isms that makes her songs so endearing. “The Biggest Life Worth Living Is the Small” shows a level of gratefulness that the sad songs on the album are missing.
There really is a lot of different moods and perspectives touched on in The Biggest Life, and maybe the only quibble is that the track list could have been rearranged a bit to give the album more of a cohesive arc as opposed to playing with your emotions and see-sawing all around.
But isn’t that how life is. One day you feel like everything is grand, and the next you’re not sure you can go on. Thankfully though, country music is there for those latter moments, and Summer Dean’s The Biggest Life is as good of a remedy as any.
1 3/4 Guns Up (8.1/10)
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