You know, it’s pretty sad when I find the lyrics to be the weakest element of numerous country albums this year, mainstream or otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, artists such as Lori McKenna, Brandy Clark, and BJ Barham have all been anomalies to that claim, but still, in terms of quantity, top-notch songwriting has definitely been down compared to past years.
So naturally, when I start to hear buzz about an artist whose biggest selling point is her songwriting, I’m going to pay attention. That brings us to Courtney Marie Andrews. Originally from Arizona, Courtney has been doing what any aspiring musician has been doing – working her ass off to make her dreams come true. She had been a backup singer and guitarist for many artists including Jimmy Eat World and Damien Jurado as well as writing her own material on her time. Of course, that desire to write more original material led Courtney to craft her 2011 album, On My Page, which subsequently (and ironically) found her once again back on the road working for others musicians.
Yes. Oh dear God, yes. Folks, I’m telling you right now, if you haven’t heard this album yet then get on it. This is an album that’s brimming with lush songwriting, beautiful instrumentation and production as well as breathtaking vocal performances. To put it bluntly, this is one of the best albums of 2016, and yes, I know the competition that it’s facing. My rating still stands.
The easiest part to start with this album would be the songwriting. Admittedly, the themes that encompass Honest Life aren’t revolutionary, nor will they blow your mind. Much like say, Dori Freeman’s self-titled album from earlier this year, the big selling point resides in the details within the lyrics. Really, there’s so many layers to unpack here that it’s hard to know where to start. So many of these tracks are painted with hints of optimism, and yet they all are framed as gaining that optimism by facing adversity. Take the opening track, “Rookie Dreaming” for example. The whole underlying theme here is that Courtney is ready to spread her wings as a solo artist, and yet the only way she got that courage was through learning lessons. After all, how does one succeed without facing a few bumps along the road? It’s a brilliant song, and while I have more things to say about it later on, I will say right now that it’s one of the best songs of 2016.
Really, this more optimistic tone is shown in Courtney during the second half, the half that’s been described as truly personal. Tracks like the title track and “Put The Fire Out” both deal with the same theme of “Rookie Dreaming”, but they’re both painted with enough texture and details to stand out from another. Then you have “Table For One” which shows Courtney returning home to her roots. Of course, as we’ve seen before, that chance to finally rest and be back with family comes with a cost, and in this song it’s facing the reality of living life on the road away from everyone.
Oddly enough, there’s also optimism shown on some songs that isn’t directly about Courtney herself. “Irene” finds Courtney giving her friend some advice on how to handle her life better while “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” finds Courtney a complete wreck. Not only does her lover dump her at the bar that they’re at, but even when she’s done crying in the bathroom stall, she comes out to find him already hooking up with other women. Yeah, there’s optimism, but he’s the one who has it and obviously shows it by being a jackass.
Of course, while optimism is always nice to have, it’s not always the easiest thing to believe in. One other track that competes with “Rookie Dreaming” for the best song on this album is “Let The Good One Go” which is a haunting piano ballad centering around a woman who reflects back on an old love that she had. She knows now that she screwed up, but it’s too late, all there is is what’s left. There’s still the whole concept of having actions result into something during this song, just as there is on every song here, but unlike the above mentioned songs, the end result isn’t optimism. This track is painted with regret, and in the end, regret is all she has. It’s not a pretty ending but hey, it’s called “Honest” Life, what do you expect? “Only In My Mind” takes a similar approach by focusing on a woman who dreams of the life that she and her lover could have, only to realize that they’re only dreams. The relationship is over and all that’s left are both the memories, and the thought of what could have been. It’s dark and uneasy to think about, but that’s the whole point.
At its core, Honest Life is a folk album sprinkled with touches of country, pop, rock, and Americana. Many of the tracks are sprinkled with a lot of organ, steel guitar, acoustic flourishes, and sometimes bluesy electric guitars to highlight the mood. Really, I have to say, the sound really works for me on this album for reasons I can’t explain properly. “Rookie Dreaming” opens with a sort of atmospheric tone before the acoustic guitar gives way to the lyrics. Really, that quiet sort of intimate sound is what you’ll hear a lot of on this album. It’s not far removed from what artists like Hayes Carll or Jack Ingram did on their latest records. Here however, there’s more flavor to the instrumental tones and overall production. There’s the lovely steel guitar solo on “How Quickly Your Heart Mends”, as well as the moodier, darker tone of “Table For One” that really make the songs stick out for me. Heck, “15 Highway Lines” even incorporates cymbals in the mix. Then you have the stark ballads such as “Not The End”, “Let The Good One Go” or “Only In My Mind” which rely on very little besides piano and maybe some pedal steel or violin to accentuate the melodies. Really, the production on this album is gorgeous as a whole. There’s really not a moment I can pick out that feels out of place or clunky.
Courtney as a vocalist has already been compared by other critics to the likes of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell, and Caitlin Rose, and really, it’s hard to argue with that. Much like the production on this album, Courtney is often opting for more of an intimate, quiet vibe on many of these songs. Also like the production on this album, there’s an optimistic tone in Courtney’s voice, as if no matter what, despite all the hardships she’s facing or has faced, in the end it will be alright. Really, the power of her voice on these sort of quieter songs can’t be highlighted enough, nor can I find the proper words to really describe it. It’s just one of those magical elements on the album.
Now if I were to nitpick anywhere on this album, it would be with the track “Irene”. Don’t get me wrong, lyrically and production wise it’s great, but I have to admit, Courtney’s tone during the vocals just really didn’t work for me. It’s probably the one track on here I respect more than I like. Still, it’s a good song overall.
So if you can’t tell by now, you should all be listening to this album. Heck, I wrote four paragraphs on the songwriting alone, and that’s the element that’s been weak on so many albums this year! Again, that’s not to diminish the other elements on this album. They’re damn great in their own right. There’s a real nuance to this album and sophistication in the songwriting that’s raw, honest, and most of all real. It sounds personal because it is personal, and it’s by far one of the best albums of this year. It’s been a while since we’ve had an album that’s gotten to this level folks, so don’t miss out on it.
Best Songs: “Rookie Dreaming”, “Let The Good One Go”, “Honest Life”, “Table For One”, “Only In My Mind”, “How Quickly Your Heart Mends”
Worst Song: “Irene”