The title track of Lori McKenna’s new album unfolds cinematically, breathlessly unfurling layer by layer a tale of desire and passion, longing and disappointment, ascent and descent. Opening sparsely with waves of rolling guitar chords, “The Balladeer” swells suddenly on soaring crests of McKenna’s and Kristen Rogers’ vocals, which spiral higher and higher, unveiling the story of the ups and downs of the song’s central character, as well as the power of song to capture an emotional center and to evoke broken dreams. The expansive beauty of the title track promises an album filled with McKenna’s canny stories about life, love, family, and growing up and growing old wrapped in shimmering harmonies, bright guitars, echoing piano chords, and propulsive folk-pop melodies.
Spare piano notes weave around the somber strains of Brian Allen’s cello on the swaying, lullaby-like meditation on nostalgia and hope, “When You’re My Age,” which features the song’s co-writers and fellow Love Junkies Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey on background vocals. The song looks forward and back at the same time, recalling the simple pleasures of the singer’s childhood — “When I was your age, things didn’t seem to be this hard / Riding bikes out on the street, playing tag in the back yard” — and telling the child: “When you’re my age / I hope the world is kinder than it seems to be right now / And I hope the front page isn’t a reminder / Of how we keep letting each other down.”
The chirpy and spry “Two Birds” warbles along a jaunty piano line as it meditates with a nod and wink on the proverb about killing two birds with one stone. In this case, two women fall for the same man at the same time: one becomes his wife, the other his lover: “They fell for him one at a time, for his silver-tongued pickup lines / So easily they flew into the cage / One got a diamond, one got a hotel room / One got a promise, one got to say I Do / Both up so high ’til they met one night / His name came up and they fell from the sky / Two birds, one stone.”
McKenna’s spare vocal opens “This Town is a Woman,” the album’s opening track, but the song escalates higher sonically when Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman join her on the chorus, reflecting on the ways that our hometowns give birth to us, show us a vision of our future, and mourn when we leave her, hopeful that we’ll someday return. The album closes with the hauntingly beautiful Beatles-esque “’Till You’re Grown,” another meditation on life and the ways we gain wisdom about it: “You’ll understand when you’re older And have children of your own / How time really flies, it ain’t fair / You don’t see it ’til you’re grown.”
The Balladeer showcases McKenna’s eloquence in wrapping the details of daily life — the drudgery and dreams, the nostalgia about the past and hope for the future — in sparkling and somber melodies that whisper in our ears, encouraging us to look beyond the commonplace but also to embrace the more enduring aspects of our daily lives that we often take for granted.