Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Age of Miracles – (Zoe/Rounder Records)
by Jim Simpson
Five-time Grammy Award winner Mary Chapin Carpenter is lucky to be alive. She suffered a pulmonary embolism back in 2007 and nearly died. From the first strummed acoustic chords on her newest effort, The Age of Miracles, we suddenly realize we are the lucky ones, fortunate enough to be treated to her music once again.
“I found myself wondering today/Why do some go and some stay,” she sings on the opening “We Traveled So Far.” There’s no rhyme nor reason to who lives and who dies in this life, but it’s a pleasure to listen to Carpenter explore the themes of life as a series of miracles, and the emotional dichotomy represented as earth/sky metaphors.
This is a mostly quiet album, yet luckily free from melancholy navel-gazing. Instead, it’s a study in appreciation for the yin and yang, the ecstasy and tragedy, that encompass a life fully lived.
The lovely, free-floating “Zephyr” explores the inner turmoil between being steady and grounded, and the desire to be free. “I tried to be constant just like a star/I tried to be steady and yar/But the storms keep breaking over my head/I’m aching for blue skies instead.” It’s not easy to be “a zephyr on the inside” when you feel your life “tied down.” This is one gorgeous song of emotional turmoil.
Vice Gill harmonizes on the upbeat “I Put My Ring Back On”, about love and hope and realizing where you belong despite misplaced resentments, choosing the mature stance of staying put and working things out. You can sense her setting her jaw, stiffening her upper lip.
“Holding Up The Sky” continues the inner emotional struggle of choosing to “settle or to run,” learning to listen to one’s own voice instead of others’. Alison Krauss provides harmony vocals on “I Was A Bird,” an ode to the universal dream of flying above life’s everyday turmoil.
Fear not, emotion-phobes, for the whole album isn’t quite so introspective. The hopeful and uplifting title track contains references to the highs and lows of history: the Apollo moon landing, Hurricane Katrina, the courageous protest of the Buddhist monks in Burma, the anguish of Jena, Louisiana — basically, the miraculous resiliency of the human race. “4 June 1989” features the story of artist and activist Chen Guang, and his need to bear witness to the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Probably the most touching and artistically rendered imagining of history — and the mystery of love itself — is “Mrs. Hemingway,” told from the perspective of the iconic writer’s first wife, Hadley. It chronicles their move to Paris in the ‘20s, when “love was as new and as bright and as true/When I loved you and you loved me.” The lyrics read as simple and as true and as heartbreaking as the man’s classic, The Sun Also Rises. This song is a tour de force of emotional connection to the past, and of love found and tragically lost. It is arguably one of the most heart-wrenching songs ever written.
The closing track, “The Way I Feel” is a two-hands-on-the-wheel, eminently hopeful song, with a sly reference to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” It makes you want to hop in the car with her and head on down the highway.
To put it simply, shit happens, but at least we have Mary Chapin Carpenter here to help us through it, and it’s all good. “In the age of miracles/There’s one on the way.”
Recorded in Nashville, and produced by Carpenter and Matt Rollings, this is one we highly recommend.
Check MaryChapinCarpenter.com for current tour schedule.