The divorce rate appears to be going up in Nashville, and although we don’t wish that life disruption on anybody, it sure is turning out to be good for country music. This month alone has brought two superior concept albums about unions being torn personally and legally asunder — first, “Star-Crossed” by Kacey Musgraves, who used the occasion to move just a little further away from traditional country music, and now “29: Written in Stone” from Carly Pearce, who’s moving a a lot closer toward it as her preferred medium for heartbreak. She’s picking up the pieces — of her life, and of old Conway and Loretta records, too.
Pearce has the brightest grin in country music (well, there’s Luke Bryan, so let’s qualify that as brightest for a woman), but you won’t see that on the new album cover. She’s got the hint of a knowing Mona Lisa smile, but there’s not much mystery about what it’s masking, by the time you’re even a verse and a chorus into the opening track, “Diamondback”: fangs. Although that song title is meant as a pun (“It’s in a pawn shop next to the laundromat / You ain’t gonna get this diamond back”), the singer does sound just a little venomous singer in telling her ex to feel at liberty to “kiss a one-night stand with a butterfly on her back / Take the bed where you used to lie / Keep the friends I never liked.”
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Her mood will soften and become more rueful as the album goes along… and then get pissed again. But in contrast to Musgraves, who spends parts of her divorce album wondering if she did the right thing by calling it splits, Pearce considers herself firstly and lastly a Woman Wronged, and is in the mood for tea as well as whiskey. So fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy postnup.
How (understandably) preoccupied is Pearce with getting this separation out of her system? Enough so that she originally committed to write about it just for the length of a seven-song EP, with the shorter title of “29,” released back in February — and currently up for album of the year honors at the impending CMA Awards — and then decided she wasn’t done and added another eight variations on the same theme to arrive at this 15-track full-length album. A woman obsessed isn’t necessarily always a woman truly inspired, of course, but if “29: Written in Stone” could stand to be cut back, it’s only by a track or two, and even then, it might be hard to figure out which ones to lose. While the subject matter may not waver much, she’s worked with some of the best songwriters and producers in Nashville to arrive at songs in a consistently arresting variety of styles, each with its own distinct lyrical hook that hits that sweet spot where cleverness and meaning every god-danged word live in harmony.
Having established that the “29” album moves through a lot of different stylistic variations over its 15 tracks, what’s interesting is that all 15 roughly fall under the umbrella of traditional country — which, these days, means ’80s and ’90s country, with callbacks to what goes back even further before that. This isn’t a complete shock for Pearce, who was never exactly pushing the envelope into hick-hop, but it doesn’t count as particularly expected, either, since her previous two albums were done with the late Busbee, a producer better known for the pop shadings of his work with Maren Morris than for fiddling around. Now that she’s been forced by fate to move on with producers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne — guys who can swing either way, musically speaking — she’s forking off onto the older road less taken, with a panoply of mandolins, dobros and steel of both the lap and pedal variants. It’s to all their credit that the move toward traditionalism feels more subtle than like an abrupt shift, so it shouldn’t doom her at radio, although it will be recognized and warmly received by the they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to crowd.
Maybe that bare trace of a smile on the album cover represents Pearce knowing that, however grave a matter she considers her divorce, she knows that the conventions of country dictate trying to have at least a little fun with the hurt. That comes here in some of the tempos, which can gallup on occasion despite the crawling-on-the-floor themes, and sometimes it comes in the wordplay. Writing with tunesmiths as talented as McAnally, Osborne, Brandy Clark, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon, Kelsea Ballerini and duet partner Ashley McBryde, Pearce is definitely in the company of people whose institutional memory goes back to a time before the present one, when playing a trick with a lyrical hook was more valued. And so besides the opening “Diamondback,” we get titular pain puns in “Liability” — stretched out to take a deep dive into her ex’s “lie ability” — and “Easygoing,” in which the singer explains that “now that it’s all out in the open, you made it so easy going.”
But it’s not all about putting a wry spin on things. In her duet with McBryde, “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” (just released as their new radio single), the two divas commiserate over having been an Other Woman before finally wrapping up the pretty ballad with some un-pretty, un-witty lines to go out on: “I feel stupid, I feel cheap / I feel used, I feel weak.” The album’s other duet, “Dear Miss Loretta,” sung with one of Pearce’s core influences, Patty Loveless, even goes a little meta to talk about the kind of classic country breakup songs that seem like pure entertainment till the day their truth suddenly registers: “Your songs were all fun,” they tell sing, “‘til I lived them myself.” It takes a couple of dedicated honky-tonk girls to invoke Loretta Lynn for an entire song and not have the response be take that name out your mouth.
Highlights abound among the musical side trips the album takes, from the cheerful R&B-country of “Liability” to the slinky blues of “Easy Going” to the assemblage of stringed instruments that makes “What He Didn’t Do” a mostly acoustic standout. (“I’ma take the high road even though we both know I could run him out of this town,” Pearce sings in that number, in lyrics that mean to say she’s holding back about the husband she had for only eight months, fellow singer-songwriter Michael Ray, even though it doesn’t seem like limiting candor is exactly her thing right now.)
The song that most stands out here as a country classic in the making, though, is “Your Drinkin’, My Problem,” which could be adopted as an eternal theme song for Al-Anon. Pearce can’t resist making an almost good-timey song — under different circumstances, you could almost call it a barroom feel — out of lyrics as sober and depressed as “It’s never my tab, but I always pay” and “You’re hittin’ that bottle while I’m hittin’ rock bottom.” It’s easily one of the best songs ever written about suffering from second-hand Smirnoff.
Although it’s a little less in the pocket in that classic vain, another highlight just as strong is “Messy.” It could almost be a sister song to Musgraves’ “Hookup Culture,” where that singer wrote about rushing back onto the dating scene after a split. Pearce runs into a similar realization here: “Little black dress in the bathroom / From last Friday night’ Thought I was ready, it was too soon / God, I wasn’t right.” It captures that moment in the wake of a devastating breakup when you realize that, as much time as you might’ve spent focused on your ex’s bad decisions, the lust for a rebound has left you capable of making some of those yourself.
Pearce deviates from the strictness of a concept album just once, with “Show Me Around,” a song inspired by Busbee’s tragic early death that imagines a loved one who’s died preparing to be a heavenly tour guide for those who follow. It’s a good spiritual, even if its sweetness in the face of death sounds sentimental after the toughness of the 14 songs that deal with the other D-word. There’s also a note of hope, as might be expected, in the finale, “I Want to Mean It,” about planning to keep the next set of vows, although it sure sounds like she meant the last round. Pearce is so fierce about maintaining a one-track mind that, if she does get married again, you’d be inclined to predict the album she makes after that will be 100% love songs. For now, anyway, it’s our fortune that she’s back to being a miss, and that her musical giftedness in getting it all off her chest is right up there with her level of grievance. If you’ve got a hankering for some sad-ass country music, happy days are here again.
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