Gretchen Peters consistently raises the bar and somehow manages to surpass it with each album. Her previous outing, 2015’s Blackbirds won the International Roots Album of the Year. This time she retains many of the same backing musicians and co-writers but focuses on female characters from teenage girls to old women to deliver another masterpiece. Peters proves yet again on Dancing with the Beast that she is today’s most vivid, detailed songwriter. She is uncanny at transforming simple thoughts or images into song. “The pictures and details come first, and I think that’s kind o necessary because they’re sort of like little bombs of emotion,” she says. “It’s like when you pull out a Polaroid that you haven’t seen in 25 years, and your heart just kind of explodes because it brings back a whole world.”
Driven by two main events in 2017 – The Women’s March and #MeToo Movement, Peters couldn’t help but take a feminist perspective on this album. Her vignettes take on both those “Polaroid moments” and current experience. For example, having grown up in Scarsdale, NY, Peters speaks from personal observations in delineating adolescent female insecurities in “The Boy from Rye’ using lyrics like these “One too fat, one too thin/One too many flaws to measure/impossible to live inside your skin/And serve at someone else’s pleasure” – “Our parents dozed after tennis and swim/And disappeared into their gin and tonics/And there we were, alone with him/His smile knowing and ironic.”
Her mother, who passed away in 2016, is the final female voice on “Love That Makes a Cup of Tea,” the idea taken from a dream that Peters had of her mom. Peters, primarily a dark writer, wanted to end the album on a hopeful note after songs that include a murder ballad, a teenage prostitute, weariness from the election, post-war syndrome, and similar subjects she is more comfortable writing about. Let’s take a few of them.
” Wichita” seems to be about a retarded girl who either prevents a murder or becomes part of a double murder. Like “Blackbirds” it was written with Ben Glover and like that tune has them playing detectives as writers. Peters says, “I think I had the line, ‘I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita’ And the next questions were, ‘What happened to this girl? How did we get there?”
The catalyst for “Truckstop Angel,” also written with Glover, was an article Peters read about 20 years ago in the New Yorker about people who lived in wide open western places to get away from the world. She never got one of the things in the article describing truckstop prostitutes out of her mind until she encountered one at a truckstop in Alabama. Here’s the opening verse – “I meet them in the truckstops/I meet them in the bars/I meetthemn in the parking lots/And I slip into their cars/They come and put their money down/They come and place their bets/I swallow their indifference/But I choke on my regrets.”
It’s tempting to comment on all of these songs but “Lowlands” stands apart from the others in tone and musical backing. Producer Doug Lancio built a foundation of programmed drums and synth drones to produce the sound of dread for the 2016 election. The description of low clouds and general gloominess gives her the idea of laying low and staying low. It’s another fine example of how Peters ties imagery together with lyrics.
The Blackbirds album represented the first time Peters played with a six-piece band and she does so again here. Guitarists Will Kimbrough and Lancio are again aboard along with her husband, keyboardist Barry Walsh, Dave Roe on bass and John Gardner on drums. it also features guests Jerry Douglas, Kim Richey, Lisa Oliver-Gray, and Matthew Ryan. The band and producers Peters, Lancio, and Walsh create a lush, pristinely recorded sound to frame Peters’ poignant lyrics. Once again Peters stands tallest amongst today’s songwriters.