Coming to Terms

Mary Chapin Carpenter's ''Ashes & Roses'' follows the arc of someone coming to terms with how her life has changed

”And the world that I see is returning once more, to the world that I knew it be long before,” Mary Chapin Carpenter sings on ”Fading Away.” ”It had merged with your laugh, it had locked with your eyes. I’ve been letting go, with all my goodbyes.”

The achingly tender, moving song acknowledges how time heals one’s pain and loss – chiefly by making you forget details you might not want to forget. But some things you have to let go, in order to move on.

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter

Mary Chapin Carpenter has learned this better than most. In recent years, the Virginia-based singer-songwriter has lost a husband to divorce and a father to death. And she herself has had a slow recovery from a pulmonary embolism and depression.

The lessons learned are imparted throughout Ashes & Roses, Carpenter’s 12th studio set. It can be a bit heavy at times, especially because the music is often more solemn than the lyrics. It starts as if at a funeral procession, with several dirges reflecting on life and love in a contemplative, mournful fashion. The opening track ”Transcendental Reunion” is a ”hymn to the faithful,” by which she means our shared experiences and communion as human beings. But the lyrics, using the metaphor of greeting loved ones at the airport, are more optimistic than her matter-of-fact delivery and the unadorned music. It registers as an incantation, as if she were trying to will happiness and joy.

Ashes & Roses perks up as it goes, following the arc of someone coming to terms with how her life has changed. The title comes from the lovely ”Chasing What’s Already Gone,” in which Carpenter speaks of learning from one’s mistakes. ”I keep on going and I hope I’ve learned, more of what’s right than what’s wrong,” she sings. ”It’s ashes and roses and time that burns, when you’re chasing what’s already gone.”

”Learning The World” is a sweet, tender lullaby in which Carpenter is finding the strength to move through the world anew. ”[Grief] hands you your overcoat and opens the door,” she sings. ”You are learning the world again just as before; but the first time was childhood, and now you are grown; broken wide open, cut to the bone.” Later, she speaks of grief as ”a dear old companion…taking up air; watching you pretend, that it’s not really there.”

As should be apparent, Carpenter is a masterful lyricist, and it’s no wonder a decade ago she was asked to help compose a Broadway musical based on the 1953 western, Shane. She knows how to evoke feelings and conjure places through lyrics that always tell a story and make you reflect on your experiences.

If you’ve ever gone through a bad breakup or divorce, you’ll especially relate to ”I Tried Going West.” Carpenter expresses trying to flee her problems by moving away – but also thinking about what-ifs or even a do-over. ”A letter a day I wrote back home to you, but not one you ever received,” she sings. ”Because I can’t stand a man who lies like you do, and I can’t bear a woman who pleads.”

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Ashes and Roses
Zoe/Rounder Records
$9.99
starstarstar AND ONE HALF
Appearing
Saturday, Aug. 18
at Wolf Trap

James Taylor joins Carpenter for an upbeat song about finding a ”Soul Companion,” ”out in the world somewhere.” Later, on ”New Years Day,” she talks about reconnecting with an old friend, and how the memories of their past give her hope for the future.

But some memories are lost – or are being lost. And that’s okay, Carpenter reasons. ”You are leaving me here, like the seasons will do,” she sings. ”You are vanishing slowly, you are fading away.” She sings the last two syllables faintly, and as the song simply vanishes and ends. And then she’s off to pursue a new life, a new love. Slowly, carefully, as she rebuilds her ”Jericho,” a metaphor for her heart.

Download These: ”Fading Away,” “Chasing What’s Already Gone.”

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

Please Leave a Comment