After the orchestral recording Songs from the Movie in early 2014, Mary Chapin Carpenter returns to basics. Working with Grammy-nominated producer Dave Cobb and a small group of musicians at his Nashville studio, The Things That We Are Made Of is a powerful collection that bridges two poles of existential tension: the past and the present with the future, ever uncertain, looming beyond our grasp.
Cobb is a full collaborator here, a true believer who adds only what's necessary to remain true to the song, no matter where it leads. Carpenter's gentle but authoritative voice and acoustic guitar are firmly at the center of each track. Cobb creates set pieces for her lyrics and melodies to reveal their depths, layer by layer. "Something Tamed Something Wild" notes the blurred lines between memory, hard-won experience, regret, and the ability to bear them in the moment. Framed by an insistent backbeat, jangly electric guitars, and a wafting Mellotron, her acoustic guitar and vocal are the only things that ground the tune to earth. "Map of My Heart" borders on country rock with honky tonk piano and organ. Lyrically, she compares the likeness of her own wounded spirit to another's by asking the unanswerable questions about belonging, home, and desire. "Oh Rosetta" is a prayer of doubt and confusion offered in solitude to the ghost of blues guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, while a swelling gospelized organ claims the bridge. The set's most haunting cut "Hand on My Back," floats amid layers of acoustic guitars, a Rhodes piano, and Eamon McLoughlin's strings. It reveals what it's like to be fully seen by another after a lifetime of longing for it. In "The Blue Distance," a Celtic melody underpins a lyric drenched in the willingness to follow her vulnerability with bravery. "Note on a Windshield" paints the protagonist hesitantly taking a chance on a romantic connection, as she leaves her phone number in a parking lot and then watches the rain wash it away. Cobb's dreamy backdrop resembles Owen Bradley's work with Patsy Cline. Carpenter's protagonist is undaunted in the end: "There's nothing holding us down/When there's nothing left to reveal...."
Carpenter's always provided listeners ready access to the worlds inside her songs. That's equally true here, even when what they encounter is naked and difficult to feel -- let alone confront. On The Things That We Are Made Of, she delivers with grit, grace, and the courage to accept life on its own terms. There is always a glimmer of hope. For Carpenter, redemption comes from knowing who we are in spite (or because) of what we wished for, how we reconcile it in the present in the time allotted, and who we become as a result.