On Ashes and Roses, songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter offers the most confessional record of her career. Always a storyteller whose protagonists could be seamlessly interchanged with the first person, that distance shrinks here; all that's left is the songwriter confronting herself in a mirror. Carpenter examines heartbreak, grief, loneliness, yearning, acceptance, gratitude, and new possibility with a gaze brimming with self-respect and compassion. Musically, the sound here is akin to 2010's Age of Miracles, but perhaps even softer. "Soul Companion," the single that features James Taylor, is not necessarily indicative of this set's sound, nor its greatest strength. The rootsy fingerpicking on "What to Keep and What to Throw Away" is a deep reflection on the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of collecting oneself after the end of a relationship that leaves one devastated: "...These are your instructions/When grace has left you stranded/When you are lost and wounded/Bleeding and abandoned." The personal cost of betrayal is poetically and poignantly rendered in "The Swords We Carried." Carpenter's language, both musical and lyrical, though rich in melody, color, texture, poetic metaphors, and images, never flinches from looking at her subject squarely. With its shimmering mandolins, B-3, and acoustic guitars, "Chasing What's Already Gone" looks through the past to make sense of the present. She gets there, but there's a cost; she willingly pays it and holds herself accountable at the song's conclusion: "Ashes and roses and hearts that break/I tried so hard to be strong/It may be my worst but not my first mistake/Chasing what's already gone." This is the sound of the human heart at a time of reckoning, embracing its brokenness with gentleness. The embrace of grief is observed tenderly on "Learning the World," where it "rides quietly on the passenger side." But there is another side here, too; it's expressed in the resilience in "Don't Need Much to Be Happy," the yearning in "Old Love," and the acceptance that possibility awaits in "New Year's Day." Carpenter is accompanied only by producer Matt Rollings' piano on the closer, "Jericho," where she speaks to an Other about how long it will take to get to know her and how worth it that will be. Ashes and Roses is dignified and quiet but fierce. Its courage makes it beautiful.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek