Nashville songwriter delivers unusual craft in her own fine voice.
Ninian Dunnett 2012
Hello Cruel World opens with a laconic sigh. To a descending bassline, the title-track lists a comical catalogue of misfortunes for the 21st century, and then flips it right over: "Me, I’m gonna stick around, in for a penny in for a pound / ‘Cause I hate to miss the show… I’m a very stubborn girl."
Of course, the writerly virtues and gentle string band arrangements of Gretchen Peters’ ninth album were never constructed for the mass market. But the twist here is that her work is famous; the Nashville resident is one of those singer-songwriters to have suffered the irony of all their highly personal hits being sung by somebody else.
Martina McBride, Patty Loveless and Faith Hill have been among them, bringing Grammy nominations for the writing. But while tunes that manage to be both introspective and anthemic have suited the big personalities of the charts (and, incidentally, have gone down just as well in the soul market through Etta James and the Neville Brothers), the writer herself has remained on the margins.
This is not because of any obvious hitch in her own talents. Peters has a warm, expressive alto and an ear for a tune, and surrounds herself with appealing musicians like Kim Richey, Will Kimbrough and Rodney Crowell, who are also favourites on country’s maverick fringe.
Above all, she is a dedicated prospector into the subtext of relationships, teasing out her themes with multi-layered metaphors that don’t always avoid cliché – heavy on images of the arena and Old Testament allusions (and also, as Woman on the Wheel makes plain, the burdens of the artist). There’s an unusual sophistication and depth of lyrical craft here, and maybe it’s not best advertised by a polished country-pop setting that sounds overwhelmingly usual.
Still, anybody who thinks sincerity is a virtue in a songwriter will be bowled over by Peters’ soulful tapestries. The rest of us might hanker for just a stitch or two more of her pleasing dry wit.