REVIEW: Lori McKenna – ‘The Tree’

If there was a prize for the hardest working person in the Country music industry it would surely go to Lori McKenna! She has recorded ten albums of original material since the year 2000 and contributed so many songs, either of hers, co-writes or as part of the ‘Love Junkies’ (a trio of songwriters that she completes alongside Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey) to so many other Country artists that it makes you think that given she is a mother of 5 kids who has been married 30 years, there surely can’t be enough hours in the day for her to achieve what she seemingly seamlessly does!!

In 2017 McKenna became the first woman to win ‘Songwriter of the Year’ at the ACM awards so she is a trailblazer too and songs of hers, like ‘Humble and Kind’ and ‘Girl Crush’ have helped to define the modern narrative of the Country music industry. She even this year has had a hand in contributing to the best song released so far, in Carrie Underwood’s ‘Cry Pretty’ so McKenna is a kind of non-stop, one-women industry all of her own.

‘The Tree’, produced by Dave Cobb, reflects McKenna’s current position in life adroitly. As a songwriter she has a terrific eye for detail and is able to turn the minutia of everyday domesticity into something much more dramatic without coating it in insincerity or saccharine. Saving Country Music said of her writing ability, ‘McKenna’s gift is the way she canonizes common people and the cycles of life. She exposes the mystique and meaning in simple duties,” and I absolutely agree with that. This is an album that needs repeated listens so that each song and the constituent lines that make up each song can breathe fully. There is domestic drama and everyday relentlessness coursing through this album in such a wonderfully understated way that it is impossible to take in the poetic import that she conveys in just a few listens. In one listen, ‘The Fixer’ and its tragic look at how a man wants to fix his ill wife, might resonate with you yet on the next listen it might be the heart-breaking isolation that the narrator in ‘You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone’ is feeling, trapped in a loveless marriage of drudgery and routine. What is true, though, is there is too much import here, too much real-life, to assimilate and process it all effectively on just a few listens – which is exactly what an album is supposed to be, right? This is not an album to be listened to on a ‘Friday night shuffle’, this is an album to be savoured and poured over – it holds a mirror up to our own lives and relationships and deserves to be treated accordingly.

The album opens with ‘A Mother Never Rests’, a wonderful song about the roles and routines of a mother. It’s a quiet, melodic tribute to motherhood that McKenna delivers with a kind of vulnerability previously only seen by artists such as Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez. In decades gone by McKenna would probably have been marketed as a folk singer but by 2018 definitions she is about as Country as it gets in the mainstream market these days.

A song about motherhood is then followed by a song about an older couple battling the boredom of a life after the kids have left home and the gaping chasm between the husband and wife that not even a serious illness can bridge. ‘The Fixer’ is one of the most real, achingly beautiful yet utterly mundane songs you could ever hope to hear. The husband keeps himself busy all day with, ‘miles of wires and kitchen drawer knobs,’ whilst the wife, who is ‘the fighter’ in the song, is seriously ill and believes, ‘something’s just can’t be fixed, touching the cross on her necklace.’ Her husband prays each night to find a way to ‘fix her’ (get it? Clever eh?) but I suspect barely says a word to his wife each day. How many of our parents live like this? McKenna has captured that sense of division and lack of intimacy that can creep into any long-term relationship succinctly here and only she could turn it into a song of worth.

There are other snapshots of domestic unhappiness scattered across ‘The Tree’. In ‘You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone’, which comes in at a brief 2 minutes and 17 seconds, McKenna adopts the narrative role of a women weighed down by domesticity and broken by the lack of interest and attention she receives from her husband. It’s a short but vitriolic look at a marriage turned sour. On that theme, ‘You Can’t Break a Woman’, sees McKenna singing, ‘Whiskey breath don’t faze her anymore, she don’t mind sleeping alone……..you can’t break a woman who don’t love you anymore.” It’s a quiet, bluesy song that explores the hidden depths and strengths of women trapped in long term drudgery.

The title track, ‘The Tree’, also explores strength, looking at parenthood again and the hard work required in order to solidify roots and that watchful, ever present persona that good parents need. Lead single, ‘People Get Old’, a folky, melodic song, deals with aging, life cycles and transitions in a poetic yet brutal way that you can’t help singing along to even though there might be tears in your eyes as you think about your own life cycle and the changes and transitions that it is currently under-going. ‘The Way Back Home’ has a similar effect, coming off, as it does, as a kind of ‘Humble and Kind’ part II. The song is awash with street poetry and real-life psychology, similar to ‘Humble and Kind’. Lines such as ‘forgiveness is a choice’ and ‘keep your feet on solid ground but don’t ever let the stars go’ give you just as much a reason to think and ruminate as they do to sing along.

The lightest, happiest moment on ‘The Tree’ will be a song familiar to Little Big Town fans, it being ‘Happy People’, the lead song on the band’s last album, ‘The Breaker’. McKenna’s version is better – kookier, rawer and containing an altogether folkier feel which suits the song more than LBT’s treatment of it. Stripped back it seems to say more and the guitar sound suits the song too.

There are two songs on ‘The Tree’ about nostalgia that highlight just what a talented and inspirational writer Lori McKenna is. ‘The Lot Behind St Marys’ has a slightly Irish lilt to it in which she sings about her past and that feeling that creeps upon you in middle age that urges you to re-capture the fires of youth. This song also contains one of the best lines on the album, ‘I’m sure the dreamer who built the first trapeze fell in love with someone who grew to resent the god-damn thing.’ In that one line, McKenna encapsulates the whole theme of ‘The Tree’ – that sense of middle-age isolation in which without the grounding of a loved one or an ambition a person can become lost, adrift in a sea of encroaching mortality and familial boredom. ‘Young and Angry Again’ plays on that theme also – it being a mid-life crisis song in which McKenna sings about needing, ‘a little of who I was back then.’ ‘…..Angry Again’ is about as up-tempo as this album gets but if you want up-tempo then you should really listen to a Kenny Chesney album rather than this one.

The album concludes with ‘Like Patsy Would’, a song that most of the women in Nashville, from Miranda Lambert to Jennifer Nettles, would have given their eye teeth to have recorded. In the second verse McKenna explores her own relationship with the craft of song writing, seeing it as a kind of tortured muse when she sings, ‘sometimes it’s a blessing, sometimes it’s a curse’. It’s darker in tone than most of the songs on ‘The Tree’ but still within that ‘anthemic – folk song’ range that is redolent of so much of the album.

Whether ‘The Tree’ is a commercial success or not is kind of irrelevant to Lori McKenna. Her pervious album, ‘The Bird and the Rifle’ was nominated for a Grammy and that type of critical acclaim, I suspect, means more to her than dollars acquired. After-all, ‘Girl Crush’, ‘Humble and Kind’ and all the other co-writes are going to be enough to keep her in the style to which she is accustomed for many years to come! What she has done, however, with ‘The Tree’ is added a worthy and heavyweight contribution to the Nashville jigsaw of what constitutes Country music in 2018. It is an organic, earthy and portentous piece of work that speaks to the heart of men and women alike. Her insightful and sincere lyrics can be hard to take at times, but that is because she holds a mirror up to our lives in a way that no other writer in Nashville can do – and that type of analysis can be as uncomfortable as it can be uplifting. This is real life folks, warts and all, it’s dirty, grimy and sometimes disappointing and then every now and again a nugget of joy comes our way that sustains and nourishes us enough for us to continue the fight for a bit longer. That is ‘The Tree’ my friends, let it feed and nourish you, let it strengthen your roots so that your branches can get that bit stronger before the next storm comes along and shakes you to the core.

James Daykin
@rockjames