The Beautiful Not Yet
Available Light Music 03
It seems silly to call this Carrie Newcomer release—her 16th—a "mature" release given that she's never made an immature one. Nonetheless, this one is filled with such wisdom, grace, beauty, and hope that it has come to occupy a special place in my heart. It's not just my best release for September, it's so good that I cannot imagine I will hear anything else as good this calendar year. It is relentlessly optimistic in ways that humble and move me to tears. Newcomer doesn't just sing about hopeful things–though titles such as "The Season of Mercy," "When the Light Comes Down," and "You Can Do This Hard Thing" are pretty much their own statements–she practices what she preaches. I write these words in the midst of still another nasty political campaign and, like a lot of folks, I wonder where all the good people have gone. Ms. Newcomer reminds me. Check out her Wikipedia bio and you'll see what I mean. Even better, buy this stunning CD.
Newcomer grabs us from the get-go. The opening track, "Lean in Toward the Light" begins with guitar, strings from Natalie Haas (cello) and Sumaia Jackson (fiddle), a splash of mando from Jordan Tice and banjo from Jayme Stone, and cuts to a gospel-like choir with Newcomer leading all in vocal prayer. Her voice—deep, emotive, and with husky undertones–is one for the ages, the alto equivalent of Judy Collins' soprano. Speaking of prayer, her "A Shovel is a Prayer" reminds us of the utter holiness of life's small and private moments. That same ethos carries over to "Cedar Rapids 10 AM," a fragile song of love, yearning, and road weariness. Newcomer takes a straightforward lyric and makes it transformative. Read these words: You've always been a cup of coffee/You've always been the cream/You've always believed I was better/Than I could ever dream. Now listen to them in musical context. Magic, right? I expect Mary Chapin Carpenter to come calling on this one any day.
The entire album is like this—so much so that one wonders how she accesses these parts of her mind and soul. The title track pays homage to quickenings, those moments of becoming that have just begun to unfold; her "Sanctuary" is the meaning we find in other people; and "Help in Hard Times" references "lunar spirituality" and is appropriately mysterious, slightly dark, and a tad languid. It's always tricky and perhaps disingenuous to presume the intentions of an artist, but to my ear the two songs that best capture Ms. Newcomer's outlook are "Three Feet or So" and "The Slender Thread." The first is catchy musically, but also a plea to be grateful for what we have whenever we get caught up in wants and desires; the second a reminder that we're "holding on to a slender thread" as we go through life, one that connects to those whom we love.
This is, in short, a beautiful album in both song and spirit. Cynics beware! Listening to Carrie Newcomer might just make you start volunteering at your local food bank. At the very least, you'll be overwhelmed by a desire to hold someone tightly– a slender thread, but maybe one made of steel.