We certainly have a contender for a career-best outing here, the introductory number every bit as compelling as co-writer Ben Glover’s version, a musical out-rider showcasing a harder ‘country noir’ sound found throughout this master-piece of redefined Americana.
This is an artist clearly not content to sit back on her laurels after recent acceptance from her Nashville peers, and I could see Nick Cave tackling this murder ballad, its dark matter suitably chilling and a fine example of Gretchen’s rich story-craft.
This is no one-dimensional songwriter either, and Pretty Things stretches the canvas somewhat to show another side, with shades of Alice Cooper’s Only Women Bleed beneath it all.
It’s the chorus that sets it apart, dynamic piano touches from husband Barry Walsh suggesting a Ben Folds song in places, while the lyrical content is sharp and thought-provoking, battles with personal self-confidence brought to the microscope.
On the surface of it, we’re back into more conventional country territory with latest single When All You Got Is A Hammer, but again this is cutting-edge content. Amid the guitars and superior band feel, there’s a Steve Earle feel to this tale of a war vet’s less than triumphant hometown return, Gretchen unconcerned about upsetting any apple-carts.
Everything Falls Away brings to mind Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game tackled by Maria McKee, our accomplished songbird showing us her Emmylou Harris pedigree.
The House on Auburn Street is another vivid cinematic tale, the artist transporting us back to her New York suburban youth with a song that wouldn’t be out of place on Emmylou’s landmark Wrecking Ball album. And this is no cutesy sentimental journey.
There’s a real band feel on the Jimmy LaFave-assisted When You Comin’ Home, and it’s perfectly placed, perhaps reminiscent of a cut from Mark Knopfler’s 2006 All This Road Running collaboration with the afore-mentioned Ms Harris.
There’s an Hallelujah meets Londonderry Air under-current to Jubilee, and it seems fitting to mention both the Leonard Cohen influence and Irish pioneering heritage for someone who fits right in with that Transatlantic Sessions set.
As it is, the artists involved across this album suggest a who’s who of modern American roots music. But that’s not the full story, for it’s Gretchen’s songwriting craft – the lyrical and musical – that brings everything together.
We’re into country territory again with Black Ribbons, but this is no flippant take on the genre – rather another characterful portrait, the tale of a fisherman coming to terms with his wife’s death and aftermath of the BP oil spill on Gulf of Mexico waters.
It’s a strong enough premise from that alone, but when you factor in the band ethic and acknowledge we have a stonking song, you get the bigger picture.
While the song subjects see Gretchen flit around her home nation, this is an album that should appeal on this side of the Atlantic too, and conversely that comes through on her interpretation of David Mead’s Nashville, the only cover here.
I could see Cerys Matthews attempt this pensive yet emotionally-charged song, and there’s something of the songcraft of Boo Hewerdine there too. But for all that it’s a love song to Gretchen’s adopted hometown, and one that certainly sells Tennessee’s state capital to this wordsmith.
That might have been the perfect conclusion, but Gretchen’s not finished yet, a stripped-down The Cure for the Pain bringing us back to that over-riding theme of our inevitable fight against mortality, with all the skill of Bruce Springsteen’s best work.
While Gretchen highlights the darker side of life, this hospital bed-tale suggests a little light among the shadows, accepting the ultimate outcome while celebrating the good throughout life’s journey.
And that leaves us with a return to Louisiana for her semi-acoustic take on Blackbirds rounding things off, every bit as strong as the electric version.
Early sales, critical acclaim and attention suggest Gretchen’s reached a new album high with Blackbirds, and if 2012’s Hello Cruel World was her ‘career best’, I feel she’s topped that here.
Clearly, Gretchen and her hubby work well together, and with Ben Glover’s co-writing and Doug Lancio’s co-production she’s moulded a long player that deserves its place among the defining albums of not just alt-country but Americana too.
Furthermore, on the back of her recent Nashville Hall of Fame honour, we have here an album boldly showcasing an artist not afraid to revel in her own creativity and cross that country line.
For a writewyattuk interview with Gretchen Peters, complete with tour date details and links to the artist’s website, head here.