Mary Gauthier – Dark Enough To See The Stars: Album Review

Love prevails over loss on the first album in four years from Mary Gauthier, Dark Enough To See The Stars.

Release Date:  3rd June 2022

Label: Thirty Tigers

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Digital

It’s been quite a wait for Mary Gauthier’s eleventh album.  She last crept into our awareness back in 2018 with her ground-breaking collaboration with a group of US Army Iraq War veterans and their families – the Grammy-nominated Rifles and Rosary Beads – an album that offered itself as an antidote to the traumas that her collaborators and their colleagues had endured.  And now she’s back – this time with an album that mourns the passing of a number of close friends, including John Prine, Nanci Griffith, David Olney and her beloved friend Betsy, but gives a strong message of the power of love to heal the deepest of wounds.

Mary Gauthier is, of course, blessed with an ability to confront and navigate the rawest of emotions in both her personal life and in the lives of others.  In the past, her songs have dealt with personal issues such as her addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin, her sexuality and her personal traumas and, in her 2021 book, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting, she shares her life experiences, starting with abandonment and her addictions and moving forward to her recovery of compassion, empathy and, ultimately, the triumph of her sobriety her lasting personal relationships. 

It’s no surprise, then, that Dark Enough To See The Stars offers another dose of extreme emotion.  Whether she’s mourning her losses, celebrating newly discovered love, learning a lesson or picking up the pieces and moving on, Mary Gauthier doesn’t hold back, and the listener is left in no doubt – no matter how bad things seem, there’s a way forward that has to found.  As Mary herself says: “I’m the kind of songwriter who writes what I see in the world right now” and, amid dark storms of pandemic and loss, the discovery of new love provided the beacon she needed to move on.  Dark Enough to See the Stars tells the story of how that happened.

Instrumentally, Dark Enough To See The Stars. takes its cue from The Band.  Piano, unobtrusive drums and acoustic guitar are the basic ingredients and the flavourings are provided by sprinklings of electric guitar, Danny Mitchell’s swirling organ flourishes and some soaring beams of pedal steel from Fats Kaplin.  But, to a large extent, Dark Enough to See the Stars is all about Mary’s direct and insightful lyrics and, throughout the album, it’s the vocals and the lyrics that are right upfront – no listener could help but get the message that Mary is putting over.

Opening track, Fall Apart World, was written during a trip that Mary took to Key West, and the theme of finding positivity in adversity is there, right from the start.  Even though the world has thrown up a seemingly never-ending sequence of disasters – Trump, pandemic, war, you name it… – Mary finds contentment in her relationship, as celebrated in the song’s refrain: “You’re my girl in this broken-up, fall apart world.”  Mary goes on to explain: “It’s understanding that things come together and things fall apart.  The awareness of that is an opportunity for gratitude.  Right now, I’m looking out of the window – and I can’t believe I get to be here!  I don’t take it for granted for one millisecond.”  Musically, the instruments mesh together beautifully and the guitar solo is wonderful.  The inspiration of The Band is clearly evident and comparisons with Lucinda Williams are obvious, possibly over-repeated, but startling, nonetheless.

Amsterdam, the album’s first single and a co-write with Mary’s partner, Jaimee Harris, came about when the couple were ‘stranded’ in that city for three days during the pandemic, after a scheduled flight to Denmark was cancelled.  Mary’s lyrics are an expression of joy at being unexpectedly dropped into a favourite city with the person she loves.  With a string of observations, she paints an evocative picture that will resonate with anyone who has spent time in this most delightful of cities and, to chiming piano and more of that lush, Band-like instrumentation, she rejoices in the moment – “It’s been a heartbreak year, but I’m so glad to be back here, walking these old streets with you – wide awake, a dream come true!”

In Thank God For You, Mary contrasts her former life as “…another junkie jonesing on a Greyhound bus” with the state of contentment that she now enjoys.  Danny’s organ provides the highlights to Mary’s “I thank God for you – I wake up in the morning and I thank God for you” refrain.

The recent passing of so many of Mary’s close friends is a recurring subject on Dark Enough To See The Stars. and the soft, respectful How Could You Be Gone is the first, and possibly the most intense, expression of Mary’s bereaved emotions.  Mary expresses her confusion and disbelief that her friends are no longer around with huge intensity and commitment as strummed guitar, gentle piano and keening violin stay at a dignified distance.  The contemplation of loss continues in Where Are You Now, a personal message from Mary to her friend Betsy.  Piano and brushed drums set a sombre mood in a lazy, highly evocative song in which Mary describes the landscapes through which she and Betsy would roam.

Mary collaborated with Beth Neilsen Chapman to come up with the album’s endearing title track.  Once again, the song remembers those lost friends, but this time the lyrics celebrate the love that each of the dear departed brought to – and left behind on – this world.  It’s a song with a charming country feel, peppered with Fats’ pedal steel and lots of nice fingerpicked acoustic guitar.  And Fats’ pedal steel is even more prominent on The Meadow, another delightful song in which Mary recollects memories of her earliest days with her new-found soulmate.

Truckers And Troubadours, a lazy country waltz, co-written with Darden Smith and with help from Paul “Long-Haul” Marhoefer, is something of a departure.  The lyrics celebrate the kinship between touring musicians – or “musical vagabonds” – and long-haul trackers, both of whom spend a great deal of their lives “just passing through.”  A wailing harmonica seems to emphasise the transient lifestyle, whilst more of that delightful organ and pedal steel provide an anchor to something more permanent.  And the theme of life on the road is continued for About Time, a tender, reflective song that laments the frequent separations between loved ones that are such a feature of working musicians’ lives.  A sparse acoustic guitar backing develops slowly into a rich full band sound, and Jaimee’s vocal harmonies (which she supplies throughout the album) are particularly warm.

Final track Till I See You Again offers a closing prayer to those departed friends, with an expression of hope that, one day – maybe soon – we’ll meet again.  The song’s message reminds me of Dylan’s Forever Young and I guess that both songs could be equally applicable to any parting of friends – Till we meet again…  It’s a fine song, comfortable and endearing, with a powerful closing sentiment, and the perfect way to conclude an excellent album.  Mary Gauthier has just released a possible candidate for my Album of the Year!

Watch the Official video to Fall Apart World by Mary Gauthier, the album’s opening track – here:

Mary Gauthier Online: Website / Facebook / Twitter / YouTube

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