An artist like Mary Chapin Carpenter will perform their best songs probably hundreds of times in their life, but most fans will remember those songs for the one time they were recorded on an album. This is a strange, occasionally unfortunate thing for an artist to reckon with, who might get to know a song better after 20 years of performing it and come to realize, say, the rhythm and tempo of the recording buried some of the most powerful lines.
Occasionally artists will go back and record an all-acoustic version of a song, revive it with horns or some other extravagancies. But on Carpenter’s newest effort, ‘Sometimes Just The Sky,’ the artist reimagines the songs the same way a mother might gather her grown children for a party. It was fun having everyone together when they were kids, even more so now that they’ve seen the world and have their own ideas.
As an artistic statement, the album is a feat. She chose one song from each of her twelve recordings, then capped it off with a brand-new original, the title track. Though this concept would seem akin to that of a greatest hits collection, Carpenter steers clear of her most definitive chart-toppers.
For example, 1992’s ‘Come On Come On’ featured radio hits “Passionate Kisses,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” and “I Feel Lucky,” but Carpenter chose the decidedly folkier “Rhythm of the Blues.” This time, the song is in a different key and the distracting echoes from backup singers are thankfully gone. She sings it with more conviction, which makes the song’s natural build feel less pop-contrived and more structurally necessary. Rather than her vocals following the lead of the instrumentation, this new arrangement follows her melodic instincts–something that is true of all these re-arranged classics.
“I Have a Need for Solitude” is another standout moment, from 2010’s ‘The Age of Miracles.’ Its arrangement veers less from the original, which is fine, since few melody-and-lyric partnerships are so evenly matched. For “What Does It Mean to Travel” from 2016’s Dave Cobb-produced ‘The Things That We Are Made Of,’ she simply changed the key to slightly dim the lights on the song’s mood and added a bit of cello for extra shade.
Then there’s the beautiful new song, “Sometimes Just The Sky,” which wrestles with the passing of time, the inevitability of change, the question of how to proceed when nothing makes sense anymore. Make “lists of what you know,” the songwriter suggests–an interesting statement here at the end of a collection of reimagined versions of old songs.
So, one wonders, what can we gain from this particular list of what we know? “Sometimes everything at once,” she sings, “But sometimes just the sky.”
‘Sometimes Just the Sky’ will be released Friday, March 30, and is available for pre-order now.