'One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.'
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince


Mary Chapin Carpenter: The Things That We Are Made Of

Published: May 05, 2016
Category: Country

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“The Things That We Are Made Of” looks like what you’d expect from one of the few singer-songwriters who can legitimately be described as an artist. There’s the star producer: Dave Cobb, late of Jason Isbell. The beautiful black-and-white cover image: Mary Chapin Carpenter, in profile, holding a lighted sparkler. The back cover is a poem to personal peace: Carpenter, obscured by the sun setting over a ridge near her Virginia farm, a windmill slowly turning behind a wood fence. You expect to play the record and share a sense of contentment that’s smooth as aged bourbon.

The fact is, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s new album is a quietly explosive outlier that requires more from the listener than anything I’ve heard recently. Unlike the early songs that still delight audiences when Carpenter serves them up on tour, there’s not a bootstomper or bodyshaker on it — most of the 11 songs are so much like inner monologues that getting the full force of the lyrics might mean slipping on headphones. Love songs? On the majority of these songs, she’s the “you” she’s singing to. Her subjects — aging, loss, courage, the ever-receding horizon, and, above all, memory — aren’t ones that will appeal to the fans of Young Thug. As for the melodies, they’re a sophisticated form of Americana, the only genre that, as a Nashville friend says, “has more musicians than fans.”

The years when Mary Chapin Carpenter was a queen at Columbia are long over. After 14 albums, she knows exactly how music works now — it’s a corporate thing, once again in search of a 3-minute song with a killer beat, a snappy hook and one memorable lyric. If you don’t play by those rules, you sell to your fan base and hope that your tour will pay your bills. “The Things That We Are Made Of” will be in heavy rotation for Chapin devotees. Beyond them, it’s an act of courage and commitment and hope, a brave uphill swim. [To buy the CD from Amazon and get a free MP3 download, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

If, that is, you look at “The Things That We Are Made Of” only as music.

I don’t.

For me, “The Things That We Are Made Of” is a collection of short fiction with a soundtrack. Yes, it works as a coherent series of songs, but if you listen to this album as if it were an audio book of short stories, it’s better — immensely satisfying, even thrilling.

We last spoke in 2010. Back then, I thought of her as a singer-songwriter. This time, as we talked, I couldn’t help thinking: These are questions I’d ask a writer, a creator who comes no closer to a musical instrument than a computer’s keyboard.

JK: So many of your songs are about travel.

How, as metaphor and fact, do you travel?

MCC: Light.

JK: What always travels with you?

MCC: My journal, my computer, a book.

JK: How do you choose what you read?

MCC: I don’t. Sometimes a review convinces me. Sometimes I just grab a book, start it — and put it down.

JK (innocently): You ever read Alice Munro?

MCC (excited): Everything! I waited anxiously for each new book, so I felt my world partially collapse when she announced her retirement.

JK: I’m thinking of her last book, Dear Life — stories that often have women leaving home, headed in one direction, then needing to make a sharp turn and finding themselves in a new place, requiring a new way of looking at experience and possibility. Which is also, for me, the arc of “The Things That We Are Made From.”

MCC: Well, writing is a big part of my life. I don’t rope it off. I soak up whatever is around. Books are a large part of that.

JK: “Things” is a “mature” CD — a woman who’s piled up more than a few decades assessing her life. Again, that strikes me as a literary preoccupation; it’s not something we often see in a youth-focused industry like music. The looking back concerns me, as I suspect it leads to nostalgia, which is, for me anyway, a trap.

MCC: I don’t see nostalgia as a longing for the past. When I look back, I’m doing something useful — trying to reconcile myself with my past.

JK: Paul Simon says, “When I’m making music, I’m no age.” As I grow older and older, I like that idea more and more — jettisoning the past so you can focus on right now and what you want to do next. As I get older, that denial of the past seems more and more valuable.

MCC: I love Paul’s line. And I understand how it’s true for me. But this album is a record of where I am at this moment — and that means accepting that I’ve grown up.

JK: By the evidence of this album, I’d say you’ve grown up to be introspective, private, quiet. And then I think of A.J. Liebling, the great press critic for The New Yorker, who wrote, “A newspaper can be almost as much fun as a quiet girl.” His point is that when you get her alone, maybe the quiet girl isn’t so quiet.

MCC: I have my moments. You just don’t see them. That’s the fun of it — busting out, being utterly spontaneous, laughing like crazy.

And with that, the seriousness of our conversation vanished — for her, the memory of those times was like the sun coming out. And I thought that yes, this kind of joy is sweeter when you know what you paid for it.

When I went home, I put the album on and listened to it from what I imagined was Mary Chapin Carpenter’s point-of-view. And at the start of the first song, I understood why it was the first song.

Here’s a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine
Each one was like a diamond, now the jewel is lost to time
My reward is in the knowing that I held it in my hands for a little while
What else are there but the treasures in your heart?
Something tamed, something wild?

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