I just spent the last hour deep in conversation with Mary Chapin Carpenter. Admittedly, it was rather one-sided, since I mainly listened (with the occasional “Oh, yeah!” and nod thrown in) to Carpenter share her thoughts on politics, religion, and faith.
I was referring, of course, to my listening to The Calling, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s newest offering. The five-time Grammy winner has released her best album since 1996’s A Place in This World. The Calling is full of the intelligent songwriting that makes listening to Carpenter a pleasure.
Carpenter has the gift of realistically portraying the plights of powerless people. She is the rare successful musician who can write a song about victims (in this case, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina), come across as genuine, and create a hauntingly visual effect through her music. “Houston,” a song about leaving New Orleans after the hurricane, makes use of vividly descriptive lyrics with a sad, yet still somewhat upbeat, tune. It would be too easy to write a thoroughly depressing lament about Hurricane Katrina, but Carpenter is an expert in matching her song topics to appropriate music. “Houston” brilliantly captures the despair of victims as well as the true positive spirit of New Orleans. In “On with the Song,” my favorite cut off the album, Carpenter shows off her songwriting skills—who else can manage to use the word “jingoistic” in a rock song and still make it sound good?—by coupling her intelligently written lyrics with her ability to capture the personalities of the people she writes about. Carpenter subtly divides each verse of the song, describing people in the first two lines and putting the second two lines in their voice: “This isn’t for the ones who blindly follow/ jingoistic bumper stickers telling you/ to love it or leave it, and you’d better love Jesus/ and get out of the way of the red, white, and blue.”
As on all of her albums, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s alto is rich in timbre and beautiful to hear, but Carpenter is more political on The Calling, vocalizing thinly-veiled sentiments about the state of America. The Calling has a theme of invoking higher powers, and the songs both justify the idea of having faith and denounce the notion of blaming problems on greater authority. Ultimately, Mary Chapin Carpenter ends this excellent album on a note of hope and leaves listeners curious to hear what her next release holds.