Since Kacey Musgraves won all those Grammys, some of the younger or previously less explorative fans who adopted her as their first favorite country star have looked to Nashville and asked: “Got any more where this one came from?” After some hemming and hawing, since that cupboard isn’t exactly jam-packed, the answer might emerge: “Actually, yes.” Because Brandy Clark is the necessary next stop for anyone joining this program already in progress and finding that Music City is the richest source of fingerpicking female singer-songwriters with crystalline voices, classic twang-pop sensibilities and a knack for sweet devastation.
The sensibilities shared by Clark and Musgraves are obvious in all the great songs they came up with as writing partners in the early to mid-2010s, including “Mama’s Broken Heart” (a hit for Miranda Lambert) and “Follow Your Arrow” (Musgraves’ signature song). Both filled their respective first two studio albums with a good number of wry small-town story-songs with a heavy narrative John Prine influence, only to take a turn toward something more personal, universal and stylistically different with their third efforts. In Kacey’s case, the newlywed threw in electronics amid the acoustic basics and came up with a batch of unabashed love songs for “Golden Hour.” Clark has undertaken a different kind of departure: She’s added retro-pop strings and horns to nearly every one of the otherwise folky songs on her third release, “Your Life Is a Record.” And you don’t have to read up on how she was coming off the end of a 15-year relationship to guess that several of these songs were written in a comparative hour of darkness. Assessing the ups and downs of moving on after a split, “Your Life” is a great breakup record from one of the very best singer-songwriters contemporary country has.
With its near-steady level of orchestration, Clark’s album might work as a double feature with Bruce Springsteen’s recent “Western Stars.” The Boss was obviously inspired by Glen Campbell’s string-laden readings of Jimmy Webb songs in the 1960s, whereas Clark, for her part, would seem to be taking cues from Campbell’s sometime duet partner, Bobbie Gentry, who really raised the bar for heavily arranged country ornamentation back in the day. But there’s more of a groove to the songs than these comparisons might imply, since Clark and her producer, Jay Joyce, have enlisted the 10-piece Memphis Horns & Strings ensemble to slide in, ever so slightly greasily, under the picking of primary session player Jedd Hughes. There’s not just Bobbie here but some Dusty and Shelby, too (as in, Springfield and Lynne, respectively), and these ingredients help form a stew that feels something like upbeat rue.
If you were to retitle the new album after a classic song, it might be “Can We Still Be Friends.” Over these 11 tracks, Clark manages to cover every possible answer to that question; the seven stages of grieving a relationship are all in there. In “Who You Thought I Was,” the singer pledges to become the better person she says she was mistaken for at the beginning of a romance, in tones so chipper it’s easy to miss the sense of loss underlying the tune. Not coincidentally, the very next song, “Apologies,” begins with the line “I’m sorry I’m not who I was when I met you,” but it’s clear Clark is speaking into thin air, as her repentance goes unaccepted or unheard by an unreachable ex. The track that follows could be written by the person on the other end of these pleas: “We struck out as lovers, we struck out as friends / Is it too much to ask / Can we be strangers again?” Steps to acceptance are represented in “The Past Is the Past,” with “Find your future in that pedal on the floor” as classic country metaphor. The horn section comes to the forefront in the jauntiest number, “Who Broke Whose Heart” (a Shane McAnally co-write), which explores the exhaustion that comes from trying to catalog where to place the blame, before concluding: “Who really cares about the reasons why we said goodbye / It’s anybody’s guess / All I know is I loved you / So f— the rest.” Spoken like a sage.
It’s not quite completely a lovelorn concept album. “Long Walk,” in which Clark tells off the judgmental neighbors (“If I was raised Southern Baptist, Iʼd say bless your heart”), seems included to remind listeners of the wordplay and country sass that were a bigger part of her first two albums; it’s almost too fun a mood-breaker for this collection. The same could also be said of a duet with Randy Newman, “Bigger Boat,” that takes a friskier turn, too, but it’s so delightful an homage to Newman’s own early style of Dixie-Americana that it makes for a charming intermission midway through the album’s romantic woes. (Even granting that he may not be everyone’s first thought when it comes to vocal harmony, the tune works so well it makes you wonder why more people haven’t sought out Newman as a duet partner.)
Breakups of a more material kind are explored in “Pawn Shop,” a return to Clark’s past storyteller form that has a woman trading in her wedding ring in a storefront on Nashville’s Charlotte Avenue, and “Bad Car,” which may be the most heartbreaking song on the album, even though it’s about splitting up with a beloved junker that wobbles when it reaches 55 mph but “witnessed all those tears that nobody ever saw me cry.”
As a vehicle for tearful thoughts itself, “Your Life Is a Record” never milks the melancholy; it’s breezier and more easygoing than any heartbreak album has a right to be. You don’t even have to be all tore up to put it on repeat play, although it might not hurt to be hurting. Her producer, Joyce, who’s famous for working with Eric Church, knows something about country music outsiders, and together they’ve made a collection that never tries to squeeze into any radio-friendly box, all the better to be a fit and a find for life’s own jukebox, as cultivated listeners happen across it. Here’s a quarter: Brandy Clark definitely cares.
“Your Life Is a Record”
Producer: Jay Joyce. A&R direction: Lenny Waronker, Jeff Sosnow. Guest vocalist: Randy Newman. With: Memphis Strings & Horns. Arranger: Lester Snell.