In 2013, a year when albums from Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe and Pistol Annies made it seem like country music had never been better, songwriter Brandy Clark’s debut album 12 Stories was among the year’s most anticipated. The first single “Stripes” was the finest country song in a year with dozens of good ones, and critic Jody Rosen even wrote an article for Vulture three months before the album came out calling it his favorite of the year. When the album was finally released, it turned out it was a solid, though not mind-blowing effort, its biggest flaw being the production. It was obvious that Clark could write—her work with Miranda Lambert, Musgraves and The Band Perry proved this. But the recordings on 12 Stories sounded like demos, and they did little to convince me that Clark should be recording her own work.
Earlier this year, she released “Girl Next Door,” the first single from her sophomore album Big Day in a Small Town. The first thing that sticks out in the song is the writing. With lyrics like, “My house and my mouth and my mind get kinda trashy/I’ve never been to jail, but Hell, I wouldn’t put it past me,” it showed that Clark was as witty as ever. But unlike the songs on 12 Stories, “Girl Next Door” sounds as great as it reads, its subtle verses growing to an explosion of sound in the chorus.
Produced by Jay Joyce (who has produced every Eric Church album, along with work from other country artists like Thomas Rhett and Little Big Town and, um, the indie punk band FIDLAR), Big Day in a Small Town shows an improvement in sound throughout, beginning with opener “Soap Opera,” a track with tight production and unique gospel influences. But lyrically, the song is a fairly typical “crazy stories in a small town” piece, bringing to mind Lambert’s “Famous in a Small Town” and several Musgraves songs, its only distinction being the soap opera theme that, unfortunately, isn’t clever enough to sustain it.
Still, a song like “Soap Opera” is lucky to merely be typical. Clark’s major weakness as a songwriter appears when she tries to make a social statement. For instance, on Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” (written by Clark, Musgraves and Shane McAnally), the references to drug use (“Roll up a joint, or don’t”) and queerness (“Kiss lots of boys, or kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into”) initially gained praise from critics. The song was clearly important to Clark and McAnally, both of whom are openly gay. But nevertheless, many critics later came to the conclusion that “if that’s something you’re into,” while provocative and progressive for country radio, still felt othering.
I’m willing to give “Follow Your Arrow” a pass, both because I love it and because it’s clearly written to be sung by an ally. My problem is more with Clark’s attempts at message songs on her own albums. On 12 Stories, “Take a Little Pill” targets the drugs and users instead of the companies that encourage addiction, while “Illegitimate Children” attempts to answer “how illegitimate children are born,” and comes up with alcohol, sex and the people who partake in them.
This problem is more prominent on Big Day in a Small Town, notably on “Homecoming Queen” (in which Clark tells the story of a girl, popular in high school, who got ugly and never left home) and “Three Kids No Husband” (where a single mother is seen as someone to be pitied). At least “Follow Your Arrow” was encouraging. All too often, Clark takes on the role of a voyeur, and a judgmental one at that. (The family sung about in “Broke” at least gets some dignity.)
The worst offender is “Daughter,” in which Clark takes on a man who hurt her, telling him, “I hope you have a daughter and I hope that she’s a fox/Daddy’s little girl, just as sweet as she is hot.” Here, Clark creates a hypothetical, imaginary daughter for the antagonist, hoping that she is mistreated as a form of karmic retribution. Clark takes on patriarchal gender norms, but she never challenges them.
Big Day in a Small Town saves itself with its two closing tracks, “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’” and “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven,” both sung in first person and both among the album’s more sympathetic moments. I have to wonder why Clark doesn’t apply as much empathy towards the other characters she sings about.