Songwriter Gretchen Peters is a go-to for artists seeking material whose lyric depth matches its hooks. She continually goes into the marrow, revealing secrets that result in defining decisions and cathartic actions. This is especially true of her own recordings and Blackbirds takes these to an entirely new level, one shared with peers like Mickey Newbury (It Looks Like Rain) and Bruce Springsteen (Nebraska). Here she explores mortality with an unflinching gaze through a variety of unique character perspectives and musical styles. The album was co-produced by the artist with keyboardist Barry Walsh and guitarist Doug Lancio (bassist Dave Roe and drummer Nick Buda round out the band’s core). The title is a murder ballad one of three tunes co-written with Ben Glover. Lancio‘s grimy, distorted guitar recalls Neil Young‘s with Crazy Horse. Walsh‘s organ and guest Will Kimbrough‘s slide mandola color a brooding narrative that dyanmically explodes in the chorus and delivers a startling conclusion. “When All You Got Is a Hammer” is a rocker though Kimbrough tempers the tension with a charango. Jerry Douglas adds dobro and Jason Isbell‘s on backing vocals. It’s a tale about a war veteran unable to cope: “Well they show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill/But they don’t show what to do with this hole you can’t fill…” Poignancy is equally resonant on songs with gentler approaches. “The House on Auburn Street” — with Kim Richey on backing vocals — is a tribute to an absent friend. It frames the irony of suburban America as a mirror for darkness, addiction and violence. “When You Comin’ Home,” is an Americana a duet with Jimmy LaFave, thgat offers a narrative about lovers separated by addiction. On “Jubilee,” Peters sings country gospel accompanied only by Walsh‘s piano and David Henry‘s cello. Her protagonist regards death as the love’s spirit freed from the prison of the flesh; thus it can return to its origins. “Black Ribbons,” a brooding Cajun-tinged folk-blues, becomes a roiling rocker. Pump organ, accordion, electric guitars, banjo, and drums frame the protagonist saying a helpless, despairing goodbye to his wife in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The lone cover, David Mead‘s tender but steely “Nashville,” is about the death of a relationship. “The Cure for the Pain” is set in a hospital room during the waning moments of life. Peters’ protagonist experiences first anger at her plight, then moves toward the peace acceptance brings. The title cut is reprised with a different arrangement to close. Blackbirds is unsettling, but far from depressing. It is a profound, poetic, career-defining album from this recent member of Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. She knows how messy life is.
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