Lori McKenna Paints a Poignant Portrait of Family on ‘The Tree’
Massachusetts singer-songwriter Lori McKenna has country songwriting down to a science. It’s no surprise that she has won two Grammys for “Best Country Song.” As a wife and mother of five, and an artist clearly well-versed in folk traditions, she pens tunes that ring true, and are particularly notable for their utter lack of any gimmick or artifice. Her latest album, “The Tree,” is a collection of songs exploring everyday experiences and concerns, that paint a compelling and heartfelt portrait of family life.
Opener “A Mother Never Rests” is exactly what you would expect from the title — an ode to the perennially bustling and ever-concerned maternal figure. Lines like “She only sits four minutes / she’s a hummin’bird in the livin’ room” will likely seem as if written with your particular mother in mind, and it’s the ability to provoke such a reaction from which this album derives much of its poignant power and resonance. McKenna became a professional singer/songwriter when she was already married with children. She sings what she knows, and it always comes across as genuine.
Beginning with a glimpse at the mother, McKenna goes on to survey every major component and aspect of domestic, family life bit by bit, going next to the husband, or as she rather humorously terms him, “The Fixer.” She makes an impact with her attention to detail, as in the lyrics, “He’s got bicycle tires and lawnmower parts / Miles of wires and kitchen drawer knobs,” painting a vivid figure of the handyman who seems to always be tinkering with an endless supply of tools and gadgets. The relatability of these lyrics cannot help but make you wonder, at moments, about the mundanity of your own lives, especially if you’ve settled down, to any degree. If you ever feel like you and your significant other are like children playing house — except that time has somehow gone by so quickly that you’re no longer just playing — this record should especially strike a chord.
McKenna really zeroes in on this feeling in the following song, which bears the characteristically straightforward title “People Get Old.” In its opening lines, she sings, “Someone said ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ / I spilled every last drop of time that summer in the sun.” This is your cue to realize the extent time has actually passed you by, and erupt into a full-fledged panic attack — except not quite, because McKenna is here with another cheery, empathic, singalong. The chorus lyrics, “Houses need paint / winters bring snow” are sung with a chirpiness and alacrity so at odds with the comparative drudgery they describe that they seem intended to slightly mock the dullness of the subject matter, while simultaneously expressing a shrugging acceptance. There is certainly a palpable ennui that McKenna effectively captures, for instance on the the next song “Young and Angry Again,” in the lines, “Tryin’ to make sense of why anyone stays around here / When you’re just countin’ days until you leave.” Again, the upbeat nature of the melody offsets the rather bleak nature of the lyrics — but then again, this is country music, and that’s nothing new.
The eponymous track is elegantly situated midway through the album, revealing the central metaphor and common thread that runs through the songs. McKenna sings, “The tree grows where it’s planted / And that’s the fate of a fallin’ seed,” voicing an acceptance of circumstance. The implicit compacence of the sentiment can be a bit unsettling. On the other hand, taken along with accompanying tracks, the song highlights a character still haunted by the spectre of youth’s restless energy, learning to find comfort in stability. Momentary reminiscing, and subsequent grounding, is a recurrent theme, echoed later in “The Lot Behind St. Mary’s,” with the lyrics, “And I know we can’t go back in time / But every now and then you look at me and I know you wonder why / We can’t get back to when September was our only adversary.” It’s a very grown-up message, and if the relative passivity of persuasion doesn’t sit well with you, the unabashed sincerity of expression almost definitely will.
The details of daily monotony can get somewhat excruciating, as in “You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone,” which bears lines like, “I sweep the dirt that the dogs brought in / I let ’em out and then sweep again.” At moments, it makes one feel obliged to take this poor lady out on an adventure, and offer some sorely-needed excitement. To great relief, McKenna hints that she does indeed make time to enjoy life, singing in “Happy People,” “Life is short and love is rare / And we all deserve to be happy while we’re here.” This is further clarified in “Like Patsy Would,” which features the lines, “If it comes from the whiskey, then pour me a drink… If it comes from the spirits, set ’em loose in this room.” Thank heavens.
Expectedly, the album has some rather preachy moments. “Happy People” promotes virtues of resilience, “Happy people don’t fail / Happy people just learn,” and generosity, “And they always got a hand / Or a dollar to spare.” It’s so wholesome as to seem a bit outlandish, but this only makes it ultimately all the more refreshing. “You Can’t Break a Woman” is a darker song, with lines like, “Go on and twist the knife, she won’t feel a thing.” Like much of the record, it’s a mixed bag of emotions, reflecting, on one hand, something of a learned helplessness, but more broadly, a strength accrued from times of hardship.
On the whole, “The Tree” is country by the book. The songs abound with variations of melodies so deeply rooted in culture that they strike as immediately familiar. The music is overwhelmingly upbeat, with a few slower, plaintive moments scattered in between. The record is essentially a concept album, in the sense that all of its songs lyrically form a cohesive whole. It’s an articulate expression of a very specific situation and mentality, delivered with an authenticity that is exceptionally appealing.
“The Tree” is available July 20 on Apple Music.