The fourteenth album from Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Things That We Are Made Of (out May 6 on Lambent Light Records/Thirty Tigers) sounds like a coming-of-age album for the middle-aged. As actress Bette Davis famously said, “Growing old isn’t for sissies,” and Carpenter here sounds romantically battered, emotionally unmoored, “apart and adrift, no point and no reason,” as she sings in “Note on a Windshield.” She is trapped in a place where “the light of day looks like night to me,” as she sings in “The Blue Distance,” and those two numbers toward the end of the album are actually among the few that find glimmers of hope amid the darkness of the void.
Whatever the biographical details that inspired this song cycle, this is not easy-listening music, certainly not by Carpenter’s standards. Those looking for “Passionate Kisses” (her breakthrough hit with the Lucinda Williams tune) should seek elsewhere; those were different times, younger days.
The mid-tempo material and painfully ruminative lyrics have a ponderous effect, particularly on “The Middle Ages,” as if middle age is a state of terminal melancholy, a sentence from which there is no escape except the inevitable. The performances benefit from the production of Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, et al.) with his electric guitar providing a power surge that charges “Livingston” and propels “Map of My Heart,” an uptempo change of pace.
By the end of the album, the title cut evokes the saving grace of redemption, but settles for benediction. This may be a brave album, one that will hit home with those who most strongly identify with Carpenter, but it sure is bleak.