Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mary Chapin Carpenter -- The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles

Mike Boone of the Montreal Gazette devoted his radio and television column on February 1, 1995 to an interview with me on the occasion of the first anniversary of Folk Roots/Folk Branches and Mary Chapin Carpenter was one of the artists mentioned as having been spotlighted on the show. It raised an eyebrow that one of the most popular country-pop artists of the day would be part of a folk music radio show and I needed to clarify during the interview that the spotlight was not built around her hits you might hear on pop radio, but around her insightful, thought-provoking, melodic songs that communicated so much to devotees – like me – of such songs.

Skip forward 15 years and all of the songs on Carpenter’s new album, The Age of Miracles, are the kind that would have been played on the show. Most of the songs form an intimate conversation between Carpenter and the listener. It is, perhaps, her finest album ever.

Three years ago, Carpenter suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and her brush with death seems to be reflected in several of these songs. “I found myself between two lifetimes/A sunset and a dawn/I reached out and took the lifeline/Offered up between here and gone,” she sings in “Holding Up the Sky.” Later in the album, in “Iceland,” she advises us to “just be glad to be alive.”

I’ve always admired songwriters who can step outside of themselves and write poignantly as if they were someone else. Carpenter does that brilliantly on two songs. In “June 1989,” she sings from the perspective of someone who’d been a 17-year-old Chinese soldier “obeying orders” during the Tiananmen Square massacre. While there is no judgment that is overtly cast in the song, Carpenter’s protagonist is someone obviously haunted and devastated be their experience. And Carpenter writes and sings the quietly compelling “Mrs. Hemingway” from the perspective of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, as an older woman looking back at her life in Paris with Hemingway. (Hadley and Hemingway were married in 1921 and divorced in 1927. She died at 87 in 1979).

Near the end of the album, in the title song, Carpenter contrasts a world filled with natural and man-made disasters and terrible injustices and the same world filled with seemingly natural and man-made miracles – our world in an “age of miracles.”

--Mike Regenstreif

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