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Ashes and Roses

Mary Chapin Carpenter

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Album Review

On Ashes and Roses, songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter offers the most confessional record of her career. Always a storyteller whose protagonists could be seamlessly interchanged with the first person, that distance shrinks here; all that's left is the songwriter confronting herself in a mirror. Carpenter examines heartbreak, grief, loneliness, yearning, acceptance, gratitude, and new possibility with a gaze brimming with self-respect and compassion. Musically, the sound here is akin to 2010's Age of Miracles, but perhaps even softer. "Soul Companion," the single that features James Taylor, is not necessarily indicative of this set's sound, nor its greatest strength. The rootsy fingerpicking on "What to Keep and What to Throw Away" is a deep reflection on the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of collecting oneself after the end of a relationship that leaves one devastated: "...These are your instructions/When grace has left you stranded/When you are lost and wounded/Bleeding and abandoned." The personal cost of betrayal is poetically and poignantly rendered in "The Swords We Carried." Carpenter's language, both musical and lyrical, though rich in melody, color, texture, poetic metaphors, and images, never flinches from looking at her subject squarely. With its shimmering mandolins, B-3, and acoustic guitars, "Chasing What's Already Gone" looks through the past to make sense of the present. She gets there, but there's a cost; she willingly pays it and holds herself accountable at the song's conclusion: "Ashes and roses and hearts that break/I tried so hard to be strong/It may be my worst but not my first mistake/Chasing what's already gone." This is the sound of the human heart at a time of reckoning, embracing its brokenness with gentleness. The embrace of grief is observed tenderly on "Learning the World," where it "rides quietly on the passenger side." But there is another side here, too; it's expressed in the resilience in "Don't Need Much to Be Happy," the yearning in "Old Love," and the acceptance that possibility awaits in "New Year's Day." Carpenter is accompanied only by producer Matt Rollings' piano on the closer, "Jericho," where she speaks to an Other about how long it will take to get to know her and how worth it that will be. Ashes and Roses is devastating in its quiet yet dignified and fierce vulnerability. Its courage makes it something singularly beautiful. Musically and lyrically, it is likely to be among her most enduring recordings.

Customer Reviews

12 Albums Later

Before Tuesday's release of "A&R," I had read that many of these new songs were informed by MCC's divorce and by the death of her dad. This is, I believe, the most insight we, the listeners, have had into the origins of her new music. A few years ago, in commenting on "Age of Miracles," I wrote something about how each new album of hers captures a snapshot of a life lived. "Ashes and Roses" then is a much clearer snapshot. But the themes here are universal--for those of us of a certain age...loss, despair, comfort, assessment, hope. I am, at once, embarassed by the proximity of these songs to my own experience, yet comforted by the shared emotions.

I read one review that said that the pace of the record was slow, that the songs were indistinguishable. But what if these songs think out loud over a time in one's life? Who does that? Who has the courage to reveal his or herself and hope that someone listening cares enough to appreciate what is heard? The songs are distinguishable as postcards along her recent journies. They disturb me, provoke me, make me smile, and, ultimately, comfort me. The voice is an old friend. The words reflect new challenges. The music settles over me like a salve. By the end of track 13, I am, if not healed, then healing.

"Ashes and Roses" among her best

Although certainly no "Time*Sex*Love*," or "A Place In the World," this new album finds Mary in a more somber and reflective mood than her previous outtings. While Mary may take fewer chances vocally than before, her strength as one of the greatest songwriters alive has become more fluent. If you're looking for party anthems, you won't find them here. What you will find are songs that speak about growing older, losing love, and redemption.

Great new music!

Mary's latest album is everything I hoped it would be and then some! As a whole, it feels more somber than her last album, but that's not a bad thing. I love her ballads, and there are plenty to listen to on this compilation. And her lyrics!!! Check out the words to "Old Love." It brings me to tears.

Mary packs each song with such thoughtful prose. She's a poet who writes in musical verse. I love it! What a gift.


Born: February 21, 1958 in Princeton, NJ

Genre: Country

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Mary Chapin Carpenter was part of a small movement of folk-influenced country singer/songwriters of the late '80s. Although many of these performers never achieved commercial success, Carpenter was able to channel her anti-Nashville...
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Ashes and Roses, Mary Chapin Carpenter
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