Mary Chapin Carpenter’s latest studio album, The Dirt and the Stars, can join the list of 2020 records that accidentally work perfectly for our communal mental crisis. Carpenter’s record works particularly well as a soothing balm, with her carefully chosen words of wisdom making their way to you through thoroughly un-anxious music. With plenty of life and career experience behind her, Mary Chapin Carpenter is adequately equipped to dispense life lessons, and in a sense, that is what she does throughout The Dirt and the Stars. This warm, heart-full country record finds her frequently invoking the idea of time passing; and how that time can both lend perspective and wisdom as well as comfort you by demonstrating that not all things last forever.
The album begins wonderfully with a delicate but assured track that lays out her key theme. “Farther Along and Further In” takes Carpenter’s thoughts about aging, and wisdom gained, and eventually broadens them into a macro perspective. She sings, “farther along and further in / we’re atoms and stardust circling / catching the light, and then we’re gone again / farther along and further in.” This balance of personal perspective and universal principles is found throughout the album and creates a heartening sense of being comforted by a beloved older relative.
The second track picks up the tempo just a bit, to create an optimistic spirit for “It’s OK to Be Sad.” Like most on the album, this song doesn’t try any musical tricks and pretty much sounds like you expect it would, considering the subject matter. That works just fine for this earnest material, however, and lets Carpenter’s unadorned vocals and sincere, smart lyrics shine through and reach you. “It’s OK to Be Sad” is one of a type of song on the album, one that could easily be a song you sing to yourself or to someone else to reassure them that how they exist is not wrong. “Where the Beauty Is” is another similar track, with just lovely lyrics throughout. Carpenter turns negatives into positives seamlessly, as when she says that scars are beautiful because they are the “place where you were healed.” She encourages you to seek “the cold and lonely, hopeless part/ dig down deeper and find the spark/ that’s where the beauty is.”
Another type of song found on this album is the universal empathy song. Here, tracks like “All Broken Hearts Break Differently,” “Secret Keepers,” and “Everybody’s Got Something” all do a similar job of reminding the listener—or perhaps the singer as well—that you never know what someone else’s pain is. “Secret Keepers” and “Everybody’s Got Something” are a little too similar in content, with the general idea being “everybody’s got something going on you don’t know about.” However, “Secret Keepers” is a more up-tempo tune specifically asking others to “spare a little kindness” towards strangers, because you don’t know what they have going on inside of them.
“Something,” on the other hand, broadens the scope, and Carpenter turns her focus towards illustrating the idea that someone else has gone through what you’re feeling, and they’ve made it through. “Everybody’s Got Something,” in particular, is Carpenter’s “All Things Must Pass” for this album, a salve especially welcome during these incredibly distressing months of the new decade. Carpenter sings, “You’re not the first, you’re not the last / it could be worse, this will pass / … one day you’ll find you’re you again/ it takes some time.” This kind of straightforward, hard-won wisdom is what Carpenter brings to the album, and manages to deliver without ever sounding didactic or sanctimonious.
Amusingly, there is one song in the mix that is comparatively without the generosity of spirit seen in these other country ballads. “American Stooge,” which Carpenter explained was inspired by one Lindsay Graham, is a bluesy, sassy detour that is nevertheless reasonably empathetic. Except, in this instance, Carpenter sings, “He’s suckin’ up to the dude/ He’s an American stooge / and maybe he likes it that way.” In this case, Carpenter’s empathy and understanding, her “everybody’s got something” can take her only so far as to conclude, “Well hey…I guess he likes being a stooge?” I can’t blame her for this, trying to discern how the spineless operate is difficult.
By and large, though, The Dirt and the Stars is a calming, ruminative, and excellently written throwback singer-songwriter album. The focus here is on Carpenter’s vocals and the relatively sparse instrumentation that creates a warm, enveloping atmosphere around her. In addition to her songs that embrace feeling your feelings, and having empathy for others, she includes a few that explore the power of nostalgia. Here, the concept of time is revisited not as a learning tool but as a powerful force. In “Old D-35,” the idea that time moves relentlessly, past all of our individual days and lives, becomes somewhat comforting. “Nocturne” contains some of Carpenter’s best, most specific detail as she repeats that you can “try holding back time, but it will not be held” during a story depicting a person considering their life, and their parents’ lives.
The final track “Between the Dirt and the Stars” calls back to a moment when Carpenter was seventeen, listening to “Wild Horses” on the radio. In the way that “Farther Along and Further In” was the perfect opening track, this song is the perfect closer. Carpenter sings, “Years will pass before we learn [and] if we’re lucky ghosts and prayers are company, not enemies,” summing up a few major themes of her album. This detail in the songwriting here additionally underlines the power of music itself to transport you throughout time in an instant. When she was 17, she imagined her future at that moment, and now she hears the song, imagines that moment, and recollects her past. The album ends with an extended instrumental catharsis, perfectly country-rockified to fit the tenor of The Dirt and the Stars.
It’s a solid close to an overall solid album. What may not immediately jump off the page, so to speak, will, in time, leave a memorable impression on your heart. Maybe one day in a brighter future we can return to this album and remember how it felt to listen to it during the murky seas of 2020.