Archives: Brandy Clark ’12 Stories’ – Album Review
This article was first published on October 15th, 2013 on forthecountryrecord.com
I knew before I even listened that I was going to love this album. Brandy Clark is one of my favorite people in country music right now, for her dark, melancholic but witty observations on the imperfect people that really inhabit the small towns of America, and life in general. No, there’s no trucks, ice cold beer and tanned hotties here (unless you count the anti-trucks song that Wade Bowen recorded, ‘Trucks’), instead, there are nuanced thoughts on this world we live in, mistakes, heartbreak and glaring truths. Brandy is a brilliant songwriter, there is no doubt (and her Song of the Year CMA nomination for ‘Mama’s Broken Heart’ is just one side to the proof), but ’12 Stories’ shows her taking steps into artistry, new ground that she tackles with ease.
From the brilliant lead single, ‘Stripes’, it is clear we are dealing with a woman who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks in her songs. Situated in a more old school sound harking from the ‘60s and ‘70s, ‘Stripes’ takes a tongue-in-cheek stance on what to do when you find your man cheating (and the answer is not shooting him, if you care about your fashion sense). My more comprehensive review of the single is here. Brandy’s dark sense of humor is also present on the dry and witty ‘Get High’, a foot-tapping ditty with noodling acoustic guitar and brilliantly twangy dobro about a downtrodden housewife who’s sick of the same old boring and tiresome life, “sometimes the only way to get by, is to get high”. Then there’s ‘Illegitimate Children’, a bluesy but traditional ballad shrouded in strange production, slightly clashing harmonies and piercing high-pitched sounds and melodies, highlighting the tensions and mistakes made by one night stands that result in illegitimate children.
However, the main bulk and takeaway theme of this album is borne from the idea behind the title. Brandy’s identity as a songwriter is a storyteller, and this has transcended into her identity as an artist. She embodies the stories that she writes, takes on those flawed and complex personas and situations as if they were her own, and tells them in a way that those real people would. The only prejudices that Brandy holds are in favor of the lead characters, no matter what is going on in their life. As a result, we sympathize we even the most morally distant narratives, such as the incredibly powerful ‘What Will Keep Me Out of Heaven’, a piano-led country ballad that captures a single moment in time, from a married woman about to commit adultery with a married man, who actually makes her feel loved, pretty and happy. Just like we would in that situation, she is caught between her reservations about committing that sin, and doing what will make her so happy. Instead of feeling that she is selfish, we root for her, and despite our moral misgivings we want her to forth and find the happiness that she deserves. It’s a wonderful deconstruction of such an avoided and misunderstood topic in country music, as she does with the wry delivery of haunting ballad ‘Take A Little Pill’, casting some light on the huge pill problem not just in the US, but in the whole western world, “He’s a decorated soldier and a pain pill pimp”. We don’t hate these characters, but feel a connection with them, and that is the power not only of Brandy’s songwriting, but also her authentic and understanding delivery.
Sprightly opener ‘Pray To Jesus’ further unveils the truths of our lives, “we hate sleeping alone so we get married again”, and makes amusing observations of small town activities, in addition to musing that our hope for getting out of these crappy positions involves praying to Jesus and playing the lotto. Brandy is all about the truth on ‘12 Stories’; ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ dispels the myth that such an occurrence is a watershed for a new, better life, with more freedom and happiness. The droning melody is a metaphor for the monotony of this woman’s life, and how nothing changed when she got divorced. Again Brandy’s storytelling abilities are showcased brilliantly here, and that’s no different for the 3-act play of ‘Hungover’. Another downtrodden housewife, this woman’s progress of climbing out of her cage and empowering herself to leave her deadbeat husband, hungover on the couch, is illustrated by a far more modern, country rock accompaniment, that builds so delicately it is hardly noticeable until it has finally grown to a huge sound that brings her empowerment alive and into our hearts.
But Brandy can also write and perform heartbreak, heartache so desperate and soul-stirring that it really resonates with listeners. From ‘Hold My Hand’, a stripped back acoustic ballad reminiscent of ‘Jolene’ but asking for reassurance on the reappearance of a partner’s beautiful ex-lover, to ‘In Some Corner’, an understated but soulful ballad that really tugs on the heartstrings and shows off her powerful and classic, husky tones, Brandy really excels. My joint-favorite song on the album, however, is closer ‘Just Like Him’, inspired by the famous phrase about women marrying men just like their fathers. Unfortunately, for the woman here both men are a waste of space, and it hits a real chord with me and will do with so many others.
From the heartbreaking to the fantastically funny, true and catchy, we have my other joint-favorite, the feisty ‘Crazy Women’. My first pick for a second single, it’s like a modern day version of Kitty Wells’ ‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’. With an edgy, understated, twangy southern rock base, it ranges through the various examples of the crazy in each woman that is brought out by the indiscretions, antics and mistakes of the men in their lives. This is a women’s anthem like no other, and I’m sure it will be very popular during her live sets.
This may be an album of 12 different stories, but they are all intertwined, the women in the songs all quite similar when it comes down to it. And that’s a theory that can be transferred to reality; all of us are the same deep down, we’re all heartbroken, we all struggle but we all get on with our lives, because we have to. We’re not tanned hotties sitting in the passenger seat, designed to be sexual objects and hand our men beer, we’re flawed, strong, interesting, intelligent, loving, incredibly complex human beings, who are worth a hell of a lot more time and consideration than we’re currently getting on the country charts. ’12 Stories’ may often be sad in its subject matter, but the way in which it treats its women and tells their stories so carefully and devotedly is empowering and incredibly positive. Ladies, remember what it was like to hear yourself in a country song? Well, you will now.