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Album/Single Reviews

ALBUM REVIEW: Lori McKenna – ‘The Balladeer’



Lori McKenna has returned with her new album, ‘The Balladeer’. For long-time readers of YLIAS, you won’t need reminding that we’re huge admirers. Without a doubt, one of the best wordsmiths of our generation; Lori’s albums take the listener on emotional journeys like no other, and ‘The Balladeer’ is no exception. It’s the third album she’s made in collaboration with Dave Cobb, following the critically-acclaimed masterpieces, ‘The Bird and the Rifle’ and ‘The Tree’, two of the finest collections of the past decade. 

It’s a great shame that Lori’s personal output has never matched her success as a songwriter. The songs on ‘The Balladeer’ are some of her very best to date; it’s an image-provoking poetic masterclass from start to finish, intricately crafted and beautifully executed with the expertise of Cobb in the studio.

The album opens with ‘This Town Is A Woman’, featuring Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman, a cleverly crafted song that personifies a home town as a female who watches her man leave (for good, and often for bad), buries her scars, and is criticised for change. A totally unique perspective on a fairly common lyrical subject, which sums up the magic of Lori McKenna’s songwriting. 

“She knows you’ll leave ’cause they always do
So she’ll wish you well and wait for you right here
Cause this town is a woman”

‘Marie’ will break the toughest of listeners, at just three tracks in. There’s an innocence and an everyday-life mentality about much of McKenna’s material; songs that we can all relate to in some shape or form, and ‘Marie’ is an absolute heart-breaker in that regard. It tells her story of losing her mother when she was seven years old, and the close-knit bond she formed with her older sister. 

“Marie turned 13, two weeks after daddy sat us down said your mama’s died
And it took me years to realize she wasn’t out getting groceries”

The honesty and poetic skill with which she opens up is remarkable and cuts so deep; a style that no other writer can compete with. ‘The Dream’ follows in ambitious fashion, pulling on the heartstrings with a recollection of a dream she had where her father (presumably) and child are side by side, chatting as if they’d known each other forever. For anyone who hasn’t had the opportunity to meet a Grandparent, this one’s a killer, and showcases the astonishing level of Lori’s hard-hitting, brave songcraft to perfection.

Another of the album’s top quality gems is ‘Stuck In High School’, with its dreamy melody that just sweeps you away, and the sentiment of feeling as if you’re past your best days. Questioning “did you ever make those dreams come true? Or is a kid still waiting?”, it’s a self-confession of hanging on to those high school memories, which will feel strikingly familiar to many listeners. 

“I rose colored those memories with drug store sunglasses
I never liked warm beer or cigarettes
But I liked watching the smoke clear the high school fence”

Again, it’s McKenna’s ability to take a run-of-the-mill subject and transform it into something so visual and artistic, which makes her work so stunning. ‘Two Birds’ is another fine example; a familiar story of two girls unknowingly battling it out for the same guy, only for it all to end in tears. 

“Both up so high till they met one night
His name came up and they fell from the sky
Two birds, one stone”

Huge respect to Dave Cobb, who once again has flourished in the production seat and elevated the quality of McKenna’s music to the highest level. The instrumentation on each track, often stripped right back, is so intricately designed to create each visual movie in the listener’s minds, which is such an important element on any Lori McKenna album.

Whether it’s the Simon and Garfunkel-esque feel of the title track ‘The Balladeer’, the heavy-hitting chord progression of ‘Uphill’, or the optimistic light-hearted vibe of ‘Good Fight’, the melodies are heavenly and so wonderfully executed. Along with the two previous albums Cobb has been involved in, this is just about as close as you can get to a 10 out of 10 in terms of production quality. 

Just when you think her output can’t get any better than the utterly brilliant ‘The Tree’, Lori McKenna continues to raise the bar with every album. Sit back, close your eyes and get lost in Lori’s world for 37 minutes. You won’t regret it.

Dan Wharton

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