What came first, the story or the storyteller? With Brandy Clark, 11-time Grammy nominee and prolific Nashville songwriter, you never quite know.
Over the course of three critically-acclaimed albums and endless notable co-writing credits such as Kacey Musgraves’ Follow Your Arrow, it hasn’t always been clear which of Clark’s songs already existed as stories that needed the finesse of a wordsmith, and which were born out of a good lyric, hook or pun, dreamed-up in the writers’ room, from which a story was then crafted around.
On her excellent fourth album neither comes first, because for the first time in her career the story and the storyteller are one. Produced by similarly celebrated singer songwriter Brandi Carlile (I know, it’s confusing), this deeply personal self-titled album, which spans love songs and origin stories, marks a career highlight for Clark.
It’s easy to see Brandi and Brandy as a pair – by name, prestige and that they are two of the only openly gay women making country music. But where Brandy Clark holds your face still to examine the lines and scars, Brandi Carlile holds it so she can look you directly in the eye. Here, they meet somewhere in the middle; Clark being allowed to retain just enough personal mystique and songwriting precision, all delivered in those honeyed vocals, Carlile imprinting just enough of her own brand of bare earnest emotion.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on a track like ‘Buried’. Brandy recorded a tearful vocal of the song immediately after receiving bad news, and was convinced by Brandi to keep it on the record as it was. It’s a fitting accompaniment to the devastation of the lyrics, where Brandy quivers “I’ll meet somebody else, probably get married / I’ll keep it to myself, but I’ll love you ‘til I’m buried”.
Brandy has billed the album as a return to her roots in northwestern USA. In fact, if you needed any further evidence that a country singer has held parts of themselves back then getting to a fourth album without making such an open proclamation of love for their hometown is surely no greater sign.
‘Northwest’ and ‘She Smoked In The House’ – the latter of which is the kind of character-driven, small detail- filled song you’d expect from Clark – bring her home. We get a similar approach on ‘Ain’t Enough Rocks’, which is as fine a revenge-murder ballad as we’ve come to expect in the genre.
Even when the album isn’t dealing specifically in the drizzly northwest, the plonk-iness of the sad piano and strings do give everything the feel of being viewed through a rain-splattered window, as seen on ‘Dear Insecurity’, where Brandi joins as a guest vocalist.
On ‘Best Ones’ Brandy sings that “a good heart don’t have doors with locks that it won’t let me open / Don’t slip away the closer I try to hold it”. In delivering this heartfelt, sincere album, Brandy has given us the greatest possible endorsement of her own teachings.