Well, well, well. While it would appear that 2015 and 2016 will go down to many as disappointing years in music, I think we also have to acknowledge that both have also been about championing fantastic songwriters to new levels of prominence. Everyone remembers Chris Stapleton’s big wins at the CMA’s last November that turned him into more than just a songwriter, and it would appear that Lori McKenna is another songwriter whose name is more than just something you see in an artist’s liner notes (for those of you who are like me and still read them).
Sure, she might not have a slew of No. 1’s as an artist, nor is she even releasing songs to country radio. Lori McKenna has however been responsible for crafting some of mainstream country’s finest songs in sometime with “Girl Crush” (Little Big Town) and “Humble and Kind” (Tim McGraw), both of which were huge hits to boot. The best of the best in music haven’t proved themselves through talk, they’ve proven through action, and taking action has been exactly what Lori has been doing.
As a critic, you want to come into every song, album, and artist completely devoid of any bias towards or against them. But hey, we’re all human, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had huge expectations for this album when I heard Dave Cobb was on board for this. Indeed, Dave takes a “less is more” approach to this album, trying to showcase Lori’s songwriting over any fancy gimmicks. Music has always been about trying to best serve the lyric, and the sparse production gives this album a warm feeling. You don’t have anywhere to run. Just sit down, shut up and listen to the words.
As you probably guessed by now, the songwriting here is utterly fantastic. Sure, the album may not break any new ground in terms of thematical content. We’ve all heard songs about hometowns fallen asunder, and we’ve all heard about romances that are weakening. But with Lori’s great knack for rich details, it feels like you’re hearing some of these types of songs for the first time ever.
The number of sheer song of the year candidates here is astounding. That’s not meant to diminish its strength as an album, it’s just a compliment towards the songs. The title track depicts a controlling relationship in which a man (who is compared to a rifle), keeps his presumed wife (the bird) down, forcing her to not chase after her dreams. Sure, the happy ending of her actually escaping his clutches may come off as a tad cheesy, but after hearing the whole song you’re more than ready for a happy ending. Speaking of metaphors, “Halfway Home” is a great tale of a woman who can’t find love no matter how hard she tries. She keeps being urged on to try at least since by trying to find love, she’s at least halfway on the journey to finding it.
I don’t really know what to say about “Old Men Young Women” other than it feels like two songs in one and is arguably the standout on this album. Also stashed in here is Lori’s own take on her song, “Humble and Kind”, another highlight amongst many.
And sure, I’ll admit that the sparse production on this album can take away some of the magic here. It’s hard to shave off to many points though when the album is still top-notch.
This isn’t going to be the album that breaks Lori McKenna out unfortunately, but it’s definitely the album that will make many people at least pay attention to her in the coming years. The songwriting evident here is arguably some of the best we’ve heard on any album this year, and fits nicely among the best albums of 2016 thus far.