The Secret Sisters’ fourth album, Saturn Return, allows Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle to display their effortlessly compassionate songwriting. The record doesn’t stray from the folk-country lane in which the Secret Sisters travel but rather journeys over the familiar grooves of that road. Saturn Return features ruminations on aging, parenthood, love, fate, and faith, among other universal subjects.
The album begins with “Silver,” which combines the Sisters’ ability for delicate, a capella vocals, with more rousing country rock influences. The track commands, “look upon your mother and the silver in her hair/consider it a crown the holiest may wear.” The song is a somewhat prescient album opener, as both Rogers and Slagle have given birth since the recording of this album and have remarked how this recording captures a time in their lives before motherhood. How appropriate then, that the opening track already finds the Secret Sisters considering the sacrifices and hard-earned wisdom that come with age and motherhood, and the power evident in silver hair.
A few of the other best tracks of the album are also tied up with ruminations on aging, experience, and the passing of generations. “Late Bloomer” incorporates a dash of Carole King piano and crystal clear vocals to sing about a late bloomer who is realizing that it doesn’t matter when you bloom, just “that you do.” “Nowhere, Baby” can act as a companion to “Late Bloomer,” as it seems to come from a similar perspective. In “Nowhere, Baby,” the narrator describes a reasonably successful life and one that feels like it has landed where it’s supposed to. And yet, the singer feels that she’s gotten nowhere significant, and still, she’s “weary of the working.” The song itself sounds weary, and like a proper illustration of the burned-out feeling one can have when the goalposts for success are always changing. Near the end of the album, “Hold You Dear” considers the importance of cherishing your older loved ones, as you know you may not have much time left to share with them.
Besides those thematically similar songs, Saturn Return features endless examples of classic, straightforward yet subtly poetic country-folk storytelling. “Fair” is perhaps the best example of this. The song considers an old friend and neighbor with mischievous blue eyes who, by sheer lack of luck, was born into a family and situation that set her up for failure. The singer sings of this girl who’s “spirit seemed to fade/as time stripped every meager gift away,” illustrating the heaviness of the loss of even meager gifts. The song’s attention to detail, with the location of homes described by adjacency to “Mr. Gifford’s pines,” really brings to life a relatively simple story of random fate and what’s “fair” or not.
Rogers and Slagle also have some fun with words on their purposefully upbeat “Hand Over My Heart.” The title phrase gets used in three variations, each with subtly different contexts and feelings. The simplicity of this love song shines a little brighter with their self-conscious yet subtle wordplay.
The album is just a slim ten tracks, but there are a few that don’t quite reach where you want them to. “Cabin” is the most rocking song of the album but, despite its instrumental break, it fails to provide the catharsis the subject ultimately requires. “Tin Can Angel” and “Water Witch” are both fine songs, but don’t quite dig into the material as much you would hope. “Tin Can Angel” is an example of one minor flaw of the album, which is the emphasis on repetitive choruses. The Secret Sisters can really shine in their story-songwriting, so it becomes a bit disappointing to hear so many of these ten tracks dwindling into fade-outs accompanied by repetitions of the title phrase. The album ender, “Healer in the Sky,” manages to use that repetition for good, however, as the meditative repetition fits with the faith imagery inherent in the song.
Saturn Return is a warm, intelligently written, yet sometimes disappointingly slight album. When the Secret Sisters find a fresh, personal approach to the material, as in “Silver,” “Late Bloomer,” or “Fair,” the songs can shine; however, not every track has that clear focus from its subject could benefit.