We are reaching the point where many of our favorite artists are pausing to reflect, as if to ask whether they would record their beloved songs the same way again. We’ve seen this with artists who have re-recorded entire albums (i.e. Lucinda Williams) or taken their greatest hits into a live format with new bands (i.e. Steve Winwood). With Sometimes Just the Sky Mary Chapin Carpenter takes a different spin on reflection. She’s re-recorded one song from each of her twelve studio albums and added one new one, all with a new band and some different arrangements.
Fortunately, Carpenter stays away from her mega hits like “Passionate Kisses” and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” choosing instead to focus on songs that have held deeper meaning and full of her still-compelling observations about the world. Carpenter finds it eerie that 1987’s “Heroes and Heroines” seems even more relevant now.
With a catalog as deep as Carpenter’s there are plenty of gems to choose from. After all, she is one of our most introspective, emotionally rich, and literate songwriters. She can paint with words. Like her last studio album, this has subtle instrumentation and quietly teasing hooks that frame the superb lyrics much the way an elegant frame enhances a stunning painting. Producer Ethan Johns places Carpenter’s mid-range, deeper than most female voices, dead center in the mix, making her messages even more meaningful.
She claims that the title track is inspired from a beautiful interview with Patti Smith in which Smith said – “You don’t have to look far or wide, and it doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive or madness in order to find things to soothe you in life, or to be happy about. Sometimes just the sky makes everything fall into perspective.” There’s a remarkably humbly written memoir in the liners from Mary Chapin that indicates that she’s found her inner peace and is absolutely thrilled to be making this record.
The album was recorded entirely live at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios outside Bath, England in the rural countryside. Carpenter was joined by long-time sideman, string man extraordinaire Duke Levine and Ethan Johns’ Black Eyed Dogs, a hand-picked group that add percussion, an array of keyboards, additional guitars and violin/viola. In some cases, songs are radically redone with “Jericho” (from Ashes to Roses) being the best example. The evocative “This Is Love” (from Stones in the Road) is replete with crescendos and dynamic changes. “This Shirt” (from the breakthrough State of the Heart) is a great example of Carpenter’s gift for lyric detail, making the most ordinary object hold emotion and meaning. Here it’s done with a subtle percussion and gorgeous violin passages. In fact, the treatment for most the material, excepting the shuffling “Naked to The Eye” can be described as classy, lush, and graceful as the instruments blend together seamlessly. Suggest that you find a quiet time for intense listening.
That phrase from Patti Smith just jumped out at Carpenter, seemingly giving her the stimulus and momentum to re-imagine these songs. Lest you think that this a career summation or finale of sorts, you’ll be pleased to know that Carpenter is writing a new record as you read this. She offers, “I honestly feel as energized as I ever have…I can’t wait ‘til I write the next song. I feel like I just got started.” If her forthcoming album of new songs is anywhere near as strong as her brilliant 2016 The Things That We Are Made Of, we are in for a terrific treat. In the meantime, there’s more than enough to savor here.