One of the year’s most intriguing titles, The Starter Wife, Louisiana-based Powell’s sixth album comes in the wake of a painful divorce and arrives awash with themes of grief, betrayal, co-dependency, abandonment, and personal worth as she addresses the process of dismantling the darkness that engulfed her and refusing to let happiness be destroyed.
Taking its title from the de Saint-Exupéry fable, the tinkling piano and violin slow waltzing ‘Little Prince’ opens the album on a note of resilience (“Now timid at first and dying of thirst/I’m seized with desire to awaken/Lovely indeed what cannot be seen/And also cannot be forsaken”) and a refusal to give up on love, “For I know the gold of the wheat fields now/And I will not forget the truth”.
The title track follows, with throbbing bass and guitar chimes, vivid imagery capturing the collapse of her marriage (“When you asked me to be your wife/We promised each other the rest of our lives/What nature gives she will reclaim/Now it’s overgrown with vines/A beautiful ruin I visit from time to time”), borrowing the phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” as, accompanied by electric guitar, she declares “I was not meant to be a starter wife”.
Strings and piano bring a lighter musical touch to the reflective ‘Enough To Kill’, though lines like “I argue with the paint under my fingernails./Like a corpse and nobody’s closed its eyes” rather counterpoint that mood, beautifully capturing the sense of a pregnant silence when she sings “It’s so damn long for being so damn short”.
The quiveringly sung ‘Something Like Heartache’ unfolds a funeral slow march rhythm as she recalls the devastating line “You say ‘I haven’t been in love with you in years’”, while still holding out for “half a chance”, leading into the steady beat of the strings swathed ‘Sentimental Pessimism Part 1’ with its paradoxical “Leave it to me to imprison myself with my freedom” contemplating the irony of being free to embrace new love but that “blessings have always been/Easy for me to resist”, torn between romantic and cynic, and the bitter image of “Maybe it’s the universe taking a piss”.
‘Clear Blue’ floats on a dreamy strings arrangement, her voice operatically pure as optimism begins to blossom (“Why do you hunch your shoulders as if you could dissuade the rain?/I’d sooner plant myself among the things it feeds/And find myself drenched with the hope of growing”), while, violin again prominent, ‘Carry My Cage’ has a fuller sound as she vocally calls to mind a mix of Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian as she sings “Only in my darkest night/Is it clear as day and sure as night/For all the freedom I was seeking/I’d just carry my cage with me” because “it’s the devil I know”.
Crackling static heralds the yearning strings and piano opening of ‘Ghosting’ as memories continue to haunt (“Here you are again ghosting like a dream/The last thing on my mind as I’m drifting off to sleep/I search for grace and elegance/To hide away my human frailty from you/But you’ll still be regardless/The first thing on my mind as I open up my eyes”), percussive strings and sparse, plangent piano notes carrying ‘Sentimental Pessimism Part 2’ where she again summons a mingling of emotional bliss and torment (“You’ll kiss every freckle but you cannot kiss my mouth/My tiny nose will wrinkle, but I’ll swallow every breath/For fear I’ll send a signal that you’re leaving me bereft”) in a number that captures that sense of not giving up on the heart but of somehow running out of time (“Desperation left me some years before you came/And I’ve let my knuckles loosen a little on the reins/Yet here I sit inside the gate in stamping steaming sweat/Waiting for the shot to pop to race whomever’s left/As if there were a finish line and after I could rest”).
It slowly moves to an end on the stately classical string and piano ballad ‘Murderer’s Row’, a song that acknowledges that both parties were at fault in what happened (“I have been the poison and I could be the cure… Nothing ever came so quickly or took so long to go/As my place at your side on Murderer’s Row”) but from the debris cam the realisation that you can’t who you are in someone else’s hands, that you have to be true to yourself as she admits “I’m a walking contradiction, but as I live and breathe/You were the one who made an honest woman out of me”.
It ends with the slightly discordant notes of ‘Worth The Weight’, both a confessional (“I get nervous when they mention g-d/To need forgiveness to cover up your fraud”) and a defiant refusal to admit defeat (“They say that hope is the cruellest drug/And I’m too restless to ever give it up/It hangs like flowers hang their scent in air/It slips through fingers like it was never there/And I’d say it’s high time that I had it out with fate”) and that, after all the sufferings and vagaries of love (“They say that someday I’ll look back on this/And laugh like thunder at the hit or miss”), there really is gold at the end of the rainbow – “That’s what they tell me, that’s what they say, that I can carry all this weight/But I am tired, and I am praying that you’ll make it worth the wait”.
A cathartic letting go that will resonate with any woman – and possibly man – who has experienced a similar trauma to the heart and confidence, and to borrow her analogy, views the life ahead as the main course and not the leftovers.
Artist’s website: www.daphneleemartin.com
‘Clear Blue’ with Kieran Ledwidge – official video:
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