Were you looking for just two words to describe the North Carolina duo’s sixth album, then reflective and introspective might well come to mind. Melancholic would be a good one too. It’s informed by the death of songwriter Andrew Marlin’s mother when he was 18, looking back on the impact it had on him and his father, but also addressing the need to let go of the past and find peace. As such, immersed in themes of loss and mortality, rarely does the pace rise above a torpor, the emotional resonances of the lyrics complemented by the low key arrangements founded on acoustic guitar and Emily Frantz’s aching fiddle.
‘Golden Embers’ sets the mood as Marling sings of ‘our girl’ being given a last ride in a Cadillac, of death “just like an old friend, kinder than expected” and how her memory “will ever shine like golden embers”. ‘The Wolves’ is marginally less musically enervated, mandolin dappling a steady drum beat on a song about the support and comfort of others, an open door offering protection from the wolves of grief, extending helping hands to “broken hearts beyond repair”.
‘Into The Sun’, sung by Frantz, finds the album soaring (of sorts) for the first time, although its countrified melody is still enrobed in sadness and regret, even as it the light offers release, the optimism mirrored by an electric guitar break.
Again sung by Frantz and led by mandolin and a shuffling drum beat, ‘Like You Used To’ is positively perky, drawing on their bluegrass roots on a lyric that echoes ‘The Wolves’ as she sings “put all your troubles right on me”, of taking “the pain away” and casting off the ball and chain of the past.
If you can forgive the wince-inducing pun, ‘Mother Deer’, Marlin back on lead, has the air of a mountain spiritual in the tradition of the Louvins as he poignantly sings how “somewhere in a field of clover she waits for me”, a celebration of a love that will never fade.
Given what has gone before, ‘Lonely All The Time’ is positively jaunty, the pair duetting on a George Jones-like twangsome honky tonk waltzer, even if it’s lyrically steeped in the feeling that the ache and the shadows will never lift, that the same old empty house will greet him on his return. Even so, it holds the first indication of a desire to move on.
Featuring resonator guitar, it’s followed by the five-minute late night slow sad dance of ‘When She’s Feeling Blue’ that again speaks of the need for comfort when you’re down and of being the arms to enfold and ease the emptiness, but also suggests that we should not reach out to others only when we are at our lowest ebb, for how else can those dancing shoes find the rhythm of life.
The mid-tempo honky-tonk strum of ‘Late September’ returns specifically to his mother’s passing (“when it’s closing time in late September it’s hard to hide how much I miss her so”), but in evoking the passing of the seasons it also touches on the natural cycle of letting go and movng off, of finding release and catharsis as he sings “Darling I’ve been thinking/ Is it selfish pride that keeps a man from sharing all the tears he hides?”.
It’s twinned with the mandolin-strummed ‘Suspended In Heaven’, from which comes the album title, perfectly capturing that old time cowboy swayalong hymnal sound of the Louvins and Carter Family, as, more in joy and a faith-driven acceptance than sadness, Marlin sings “Mother is gone, her soul climbed the mountain/And leapt to the stars just a-singing and shoutin/She lives in the dust that shimmers and shines/And follows a pathway no mortal will climb” and how “We’ll see her pass by in the night sky a-glowing/And she’ll see the blue of the oceans rising”.
It ends on the fiddle waltzing ‘Time We Made Time’ with its recognition of the need to let the ghosts go, release the tucked away tears, talk about feelings, to heal and let the living back in, but also the peace of knowing that time and the memories it holds will “always be there when I’m lonesome and tell me just how I feel.”
Actually, I can think of another two words, graceful and consoling. Outstanding would be a good one too.
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‘Golden Embers’ – live in the studio: