“The Things That We Are Made Of offers listeners a significant gift – an unguarded look into the beating heart of one of the strongest singer-songwriters of our time.”
For nearly thirty years strong, on many albums like Come On Come On, Stones in the Road, Between Here and Gone, and Ashes and Roses, Mary Chapin Carpenter has earned the trust of her audience through her willingness to look deep int herself and share joys and sorrows, good times and bad.
That honesty, that quiet fearlessness, reaches a startling new level on The Things That We Are Made Of. These eleven songs communicate with the plain-spokenness of handwritten, heartfelt letters from a confiding friend; this is art without the artifice. The result is music that is likely to be as powerfully moving as any you have ever heard.
The album is suffused with images of maps and traveling – yearning for stillness when in motion, longing for adventure when in repose. “Do we ever stop dreaming of where we belong?,” Carpenter asks in “Map of My Heart.” That’s just one of many unanswerable questions the album raises. Another song wonders “What Does It
Mean To Travel,” and offers a meditation on the complex interweaving of distance and desire. Its interrogative tone is one of the album’s most alluring qualities, and why it stays with you so long even after just one hearing. Those questions invite listeners into a conversation, and implicate them in the emotions the songs display for us. The consequences of our attempts to engage those feelings linger long after the songs themselves have stopped playing. The songs and their questions are now inside us.
We are like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the great gospel blues pioneer whom Carpenter conjures in “Oh Rosetta” as she walks alone in New York, baffled by the world’s refusal of its own redemption. “If the world is offered goodness but doesn’t use it,” Carpenter asks, “Oh, Rosetta, what is it for?” That pained question rests on one of the modest certainties that growing older brings, as she sings in “The Middle Ages”: “love and kindness are all that matter now.”
The first song, “Something Tamed, Something Wild,” opens with the image of “a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine,” a suggestion of the elements of reflection and remembrance that are so central to the album. Such letters, no doubt, are very much among “The Things That We Are Made Of,” the title song that closes the album. In that aching ballad, Carpenter explores how our lives are comprised of all our experiences – the wonderful and the ravaging, the exalting and the terrifying. We have no choice but to accept the self all those experiences have helped shape and move with hope into the future. “I come on quiet but I’m as fierce as a lion,” Carpenter sings in “Hand On My Back,” and that strength informs all of the album’s unflinching self-examinations.
The Things That We Are Made Of was recorded in Nashville and produced by Dave Cobb, best known most recently for his work with Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. “I was so happy he wanted to work with me,” Carpenter says, laughing.
“Finding a producer is a little like looking for a date for the prom – will anybody want to take me? But I couldn’t have felt more embraced and welcomed.
Appropriately, Carpenter’s voice and eloquent acoustic guitar are squarely at the center of these songs, with Cobb’s electric guitar, Mike Webb’s keyboards, Chris Powell’s drums and Annie Clements’ bass filling out the spare arrangements and providing atmosphere and texture.
Because of the consistency of its themes, the cool introspection of Carpenter’s voice, and the mid-to-slow tempos, the album unfolds like one long, mesmerizing song. Within that rich coherence, Cobb suggested subtle touches that keep every new hearing fresh. “He’s very old school in that he likes hooks and choruses,” Carpenter says, “so he would indicate a riff or something else and say, ‘I’d like to hear that again,’ so the record doesn’t drag. And the way we sequenced it, we take you on a journey.”
The Things That We Are Made Of offers listeners a significant gift – an unguarded look into the beating heart of one of the strongest singer-songwriters of our time. In an intriguing way, Carpenter occasionally sounds as if she stands in the same relationship to the album that we do, that having created it, she is still plumbing it for meaning and for sustenance. “I feel as if I’m still trying to come up with a reliable way of talking about what this album is about,” Carpenter says. “I haven’t finished thinking about it. It’s part of an ongoing conversation that I’m having with myself about my life. But if you’re not trying to connect in some way to the world, what else is there? All I can hope for is that people connect to it. That’s the most rewarding part of doing this work – believing that you’re speaking to what we all feel.