The Age of Miracles
While Mary Chapin Carpenter enjoyed an impressive run of hits on the country charts during the 1990s, it was always clear that she was a folk-influenced singer/songwriter who found a way to coexist with Nashville rather than an artist whose first goal was landing singles on country radio. Now that Carpenter has left the major labels, she seems more than willing to let the country side of her musical personality fade, and her 11th studio album, 2010's The Age of Miracles, is a literate and thoughtful set of songs that speak to the concerns of the heart and soul with equal portions of compassion and intelligence. The audience that made "Down at the Twist and Shout" and "Shut Up and Kiss Me" chart favorites aren't likely to embrace The Age of Miracles, but as a personal work it's as affecting as anything she's ever cut and one of her most lyrically ambitious sets to date. While "I Put My Ring Back On" is an honest and moving testimony of the ways love can ebb and flow, "I Have a Need for Solitude" is just as compelling in its demand for love on one's own terms, and both have more to say about how relationships work in the real word than you're likely to hear on any other album from 2010. "Mrs. Hemingway" is a lovely, nuanced bit of storytelling, while "4 June, 1989," told from the perspective of a young Chinese soldier ordered to clear the protesters from Tiananmen Square, puts a fresh and deeply human twist on a story we imagine we already know. Carpenter produced the album in collaboration with Matt Rollings, and the album's approach is subtle, with the musicians showing respect for the dynamics of the arrangements and supporting Carpenter's gentle but assured vocals rather than drowning them out. Mary Chapin Carpenter doesn't sound especially concerned with how much product she'll move on The Age of Miracles; instead, she's made an album that speaks with honesty and clarity about the mysteries of love and fate, and she communicates well enough that it's hard to imagine anyone who has ever thought about the ways life can turn on a dime not being moved by the beauty of this music.