Mention the songs of Gretchen Peters and the reaction is likely to include “deep”, “emotion”, “dark”, “honest”. I could go on. Her recent release Dancing With The Beast is all of the above and a great deal more. It is by no means an easy, and certainly not a cheerful, listen but persist, and it will prove one of the most rewarding for a long time.
The central character in these eleven songs is a woman, and the lyrics speak straight and at times, bluntly, from a feminist perspective. This is nothing new from Peters but the 2017 Women’s March and #MeTooMovement gave this theme greater resonance. Through her vividly described characters Peters addresses grim issues but these songs perform a vital purpose in exposing just what some women have gone through. And what so many continue to experience. The very least we can do is listen carefully.
Peters is one of the most articulate and lucid songwriters around. She admits freely her talents are especially well applied to the darker side of life. For that alone Dancing With The Beast is her best yet. It is also an album, so to get the most out of what Peters presents it should be listened to from beginning to end in a single sitting. Then just reflect for a bit.
First track, ‘Arguing With Ghosts’, deals with the changes wrought by the passing of time. Co-written with Matraca Berg and Ben Glover, the song’s opening verse observes changes in Nashville. A mother laments, “I get lost in my home town/Since they tore the drive-in down/I find myself all turned around/I get lost in my home town”. What the three writers then do is to bring that literal description to a more introspective level as the mother then reflects on her life that she thinks holds little left. “There’s a picture on the wall/We got married in the fall/Now I don’t know those kids at all/There’s a picture on the wall”. Bleak.
‘Wichita’ is a harrowing story told by a 12-year-old girl who couldn’t take the abuse meted out by the man who took the place of her long-departed father. The twangy opening is full of foreboding and the pace, often a measure of a song’s emotion, hurtles relentlessly towards “You do it for yourself and so I loaded up her gun/And I was steady on the draw that night in Wichita”. After all who’s going to believe a 12-year-old kid who thought, “I may not know too much – I may not be too smart”?
In ‘The Boy From Rye’ Peters sings almost in an echo, with musical backing even further distant, as if to amplify the sadness of what that young girl had hoped would be a summer of first love. The Boy From Rye not only dashed her innocent hopes but those of many more at the same time before casually heading home in September.
Title track, ‘Dancing With The Beast’ is a big song. Also co-written with Ben Glover its power lies in its sheer menace. This is a woman trapped in a relationship with a complete control freak. There is no escape. Peters sings, her backing comes in and together they rise in a crescendo of helplessness. “We circle round the room together/Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss/One by one the lights go out inside me/And I’m falling into the abyss”.
Entrapment is also the theme of ’Truckstop Angel’, a depressing insight into the life of a teenage prostitute, in the trailer park, wondering what the next punter is going to be like. All the while she dreams of escape, but such is the imagery it’s not clear if that’s on her own or with the angels.
Peters wrote some of this album during the 2016 Presidential election. While she doesn’t describe herself as a political writer she did want to convey the sense of dread she felt building up that year. ‘Lowlands’ was the result. It has no chorus, just verse after verse hurtling on to convey the relentlessness of that year and campaign. Producer Doug Lancio wound up that intensity by adding programmed drums and synth drones. The lyrics aren’t just about a deepening foreboding but also how the election’s result has split communities.
And finally there is hope. The inspiration for ‘Love That Makes A Cup of Tea’ came from a dream Peters had of her late mother. This is a deeply personal feeling of love and a departure from much of the album. “But there is love that makes a cup of tea/Love that loves both who you are and who you want to be/Love that waits for you when you fall behind/That’s the kind of love I hope you find”. After all that Peters has covered and the deep pits of emotion into which she has plunged her listener it is a relief that she feels moved to end on a note of hope.
Dancing With The Beast is a tough listen, it must have been a lot tougher to write. But the result for listener and artist should be satisfaction at having shone a light on some of the deepest wrongs in today’s world. It probably isn’t sticking the neck out too far to expect this to feature highly among this year’s releases.