CD Review of The Calling by Mary Chapin Carpenter

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The Calling
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Released: 2007
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She no longer enjoys the kind of mass-market cachet that made her a crossover artist, but as Mary Chapin Carpenter's commercial fortunes have declined, the stuff that truly matters – her music – has improved. This is not to say that her earlier albums were bad, or even mediocre; Carpenter was responsible for some of the most indelibly charming singles country radio had to offer in the early '90s. There's a difference between “charming” and “powerful,” however, and beginning with 2001's Time*Sex*Love, Carpenter has moved away from stories about small towns and toward larger statements.

The Calling follows Carpenter's masterpiece, 2004's Between Here and Gone, a luminous song cycle about hope, loneliness, and mortality in 21st-century America that contained the best songs of her career (and spelled doom for her 15-year relationship with Sony Music). That this new album suffers by comparison to its predecessor is neither surprising nor an indictment of the songs – even if they aren't Carpenter's absolute best, they're still awfully good.

To casual listeners, these 13 songs will probably sound a lot like everything else Mary Chapin Carpenter has done in the last decade or so – pretty, midtempo fare, with lots of tasteful guitars and tinkling pianos, led by Carpenter's mournful voice – but appearances can be deceiving. Certainly there's no shortage of prettiness, or mournfulness, or tinkling here, but Carpenter has been diligently honing her songwriting tools for awhile now, and beneath the surface, these songs reflect a further maturation and sharpening of focus.

As she has expanded the scope of her songs, Carpenter has narrowed their focus; it's a nifty trick, but one that most songwriters never learn. This is unfortunate, because by addressing the universal in personal terms, Carpenter can talk about pretty much anything – religion, faith, politics – without seeming like she's up on a soapbox. She approaches stridency only once, in the Dixie Chicks-dedicated “On with the Song,” a satisfyingly straightforward kick in the gut to those who'd forcibly quell freedom of speech. The anger in lines like “This isn't for the ones who blindly follow / Jingoistic bumper stickers telling you / To love it or leave it, and you'd better love Jesus / And get out of the way of the red, white and blue” is measured, and couched in such a deceptively gentle arrangement that you're liable to miss it if you aren't paying attention. But that's part of Carpenter's charm – particularly at this advanced stage of her career, she's content to make her statements her own way, and trust the listener to listen. Imagine that.

~Jeff Giles