Who knew that women could suffer from quiet desperation just as potently as men? Sure, maybe that theme has been touched on with subtle shades here and there in country music over the years, but rarely has it been delved into with such honesty, or been portrayed in such a moving manner as songwriting maestro Brandy Clark does in her breakout album 12 Stories.
The hidden dystopia seething under the smile of sweet suburban life, and the general dysfunction plaguing any and all affairs of the heart is the broken-minded madness that Brandy taps into with this album, following fed up and frustrated fraus who are willing to medicate themselves and match the misdeeds of their men sin for glorious sin. Frail, turbulent, vengeful, but still somehow empowered and held together by the strength and perseverance of womanhood, the heroins of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories are as inspiring as they are shameful, and tragic as they are real.
Brandy Clark is a fast-rising songwriting commodity of the country music world to say the least. In a genre and time where a couple of lucrative songwriting credits can make you as hot of a topic as any, just as a lack thereof can label you forgotten, Brandy Clark, like some other female songwriters in country before her in 2013, proves that taking songwriting approach to getting noticed by the suits is the much more savory way to make your name than the performance realm and its plastic reality.
Brandy’s songwriting credits are considerable, and include Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” and Wade Bowen’s anti-hit “Trucks.” Brandy is firmly ensconced in a close, songwriting circle that includes Kacey Musgraves, songwriter Shane McAnally, and a few select others. However she weaseled or worked her way into her current position, she is part of country music’s 2013 female songwriting revolution, painting in themes and colors that are counter-intuitive to Music Row’s tried and true tropes.
This album has what might be fair to portray as an “instant classic,” though it’s not likely to sniff the top of the country charts anytime soon. The song is called “Stripes” (see below), and it defines the keen sense of the female condition that Brandy Clark brings to her music that sets her apart from the fold. Because of the commercial implications, “Get High” might receive the most attention, and though it may be a little too obvious to a critical ear, the cunning lyricism is nonetheless noticeable, as it is in songs like “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “The Day She Got Divorced.” The final track “Just Like Him” is the real gem of 12 Stories, swimming in heartbreak and emotional potency.
There aren’t a ton of criticisms to lob at Brandy Clark and 12 Stories but there are a few; the first being the similarities in themes to Kacey Musgraves and her own breakout album, Same Trailer, Different Park. This is to be expected, seeing how Clark and Musgraves have worked together so intimately, but it makes 12 Stories feel like the second album instead of the first. Songs that like to try to reveal the farce of suburban life, the drug and pill references, how the song’s characters have a careless, almost arrogant, “I don’t give a shit what the world thinks” tone begin to wear their own grooves of predictability, despite residing out of Nashville’s beaten path. A few years ago, a marijuana reference in a country song was scandalous. Now it is passe, and can’t be the only thing a song is constructed around unless the song’s sole purpose is to sell.
The music on 12 Stories is also similar to Musgraves, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Progressive and at times rhythmic, with dalliances in traditional country instrumentation and sparseness. Sonically the album is sensible, and you find yourself spending much more attention on the words than the music—a good sign for a songwriter’s album.
The other important observation about 12 Stories is that very similarly to some Pistol Annies and Miranda Lambert material, this album could appeal very differently to the respective genders. Ladies will love it, while some men will look at it a little sideways. Somewhere deep in this music is enough truth that men who listen deeply will discover something to relate to, but I’m not sure it’s fair to judge a man if he is unable to find it. This album is steeped in a women’s perspective, and is quite harsh on its male characters.
Many have 12 Stories on their short list for “album of the year” and such. That is a very fair and understandable take, but I’m not sure I’m willing to go there, at least not yet. Nonetheless, Brandy Clark does a very commendable job telling her 12 Stories, and you would be wise to listen.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars.
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