GRETCHEN PETERS – Dancing With The Beast (Scarlet Letter/Proper PRPCD148P)

Dancing With The BeastHaving enjoyed her biggest success to date with the Ben Glover co-penned southern gothic ‘Blackbirds’, it is, perhaps, not too surprising to find echoes in Dancing With The Beast. In terms of narrative, the slightly swampy ‘Wichita’, which Glover also co-wrote and which features Jerry Douglas on Dobro, is another murder ballad, this time round a mentally handicapped 12-year-old girl taking a gun to protect herself, her dysfunctional divorced mother and little sister from an abusive man as she sings “I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita”.

More specifically, the politically pointed ‘Lowlands’ traces a similar melody to the Grammy winner’s refrain on a song written in response to the 2016 election with lyrics reflecting the sense of disquiet about a man who “lies just for the sake of lying.. sell you kerosene and call it hope.” This one’s not written with Ben Glover, but he does have three co-write credits, the first up being the album’s opening number, a three-way split with Matraca Berg, a melancholically, world weary reflective song about growing old and times changing as she sings “I get lost in my hometown, since they tore the Drive-In down”, perhaps carrying with it hints of incipient Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the album, she’s backed by Doug Lancio on guitar and synths, guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboard player Barry Walsh, bassist and John Gardner on drums, the songs populated with a variety of female characters and driven by a feminist perspective. The moods vary. On the dreamy, piano-backed ‘The Boy From Rye’, steeped in the insecurities of female adolescence, it’s one of wistful reflection on a summer romance with a boy from out of town who, “His smile knowing and ironic” divided friendships as “One by one he broke our virgin hearts/And set us one against the other”. In contrast, the more musically muscular but equally poignant ‘Life Is A Disappearing Act’ turns its gaze on a middle-aged woman who, widowed after fifty years of marriage, having lost two babies at birth and a son to the Iraq war, mentally and emotionally rather than physically, now finds herself alone, lonely and isolated, trapped in a “dark cocoon” and “crying at the kitchen sink” , “if Jesus is comin’ soon And if he is, he better make it quick”.

She turns the mirror on herself, and any touring musician, for the whisperingly sung ‘The Show’, which, accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and piano, reflects on life on the road, “somewhere between Bend and Birmingham”, drinking hotel coffee that “tastes like kerosene”, saving up the energy for “Nineteen songs and one more night to go”.

Clearly, it can take its toll (“I clutch this guitar to my chest and wonder just what I’ll have left/When all of this hard traveling’s finally done”), especially on sustaining a relationship, and she reprises the theme on ‘Lay Low’, where, “a good three hours to Aberdeen”, she sings how “Tonight I’ll call to say hello, but your phone’s just gonna ring I know” and of the need to take some time out to recharge.

The other two Glover co-writes play back to back. Like ‘Blackbirds’, they’ve both recorded their own versions, the title track here to be found on his current Shorebound album, both swelling towards the end and featuring a nervy acoustic guitar line, but her’s without the prominent strings and the drums held back until towards the end and Kim Richey on background vocals. A song about that voice that whispers in your ear that you’re no good or you can’t do it, be it depression, a sense of insecurity or whatever, and how the best way to deal with it is to “circle round the room together /Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss.” However, lyrics like “It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me/If anything it’s that he cares too much /It’s only that he wants the best for me /It’s only that I don’t try hard enough” also lend themselves to an interpretation of an abusive relationship that chimes with the #MeToo movement, especially given the confessional and emotionally bruised way Peters’ delivers the lines.

The second, underpinned by Walsh’s piano and again echoing Blackbirds’ melody line, is ‘Truckstop Angel’, a variation on ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ that addresses prostitution and self-respect as the character sings of being unsure if she’s predator or prey, but that “One day I’m gonna leave here /Gonna hit my lucky streak, Gonna spread my gorgeous wings and fly/Above all this concrete”.

At the end of the day, this is an album about rising above the weight and the burdens, imposed by both others and yourself, a simple humanity and moving epiphany found in the gorgeous ‘Say Grace’, Douglas on dobro and Richey on backing, taking refuge in faith or friends as the lost, the despairing, the bruised and the broken are welcomed to share in prayer at shelter by the bus station depot, the lesson of the day being “Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes You can start all over if that’s what it takes… You are not a loser, you are not a hopeless case” .

It ends with just her and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar for ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’, a song that, born of a dream about her late mother in which “she held my hand and she said, ‘You know, honey, there is love that makes a cup of tea’.” In many ways an echo of the blessing in ‘Kindness’ on Glover’s album, it’s a celebration of how, for all the big dramatic moments, of “love that moves a mountain” or “love that fights for justice knowing justice won’t be done”, sometimes the smallest, simplest human moment can be the most profound. There is sadness, there is weariness, there is trepidation, but, as the conclusion to Lowlands notes, at the end of the day there is also hope, because “We get a lot of clouds here in the lowlands /But now and then a little light gets through.” This is a beacon.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s: website: www.gretchenpeters.com

‘Disappearing Act’ – official video: