I’m a fan of Gretchen Peters, and have been from the first time I heard “On A Bus To St. Cloud” more than two decades ago. Not an ardent enthusiast as I am for others—Del McCoury, Steve Forbert, Kirsty MacColl, The Go-Go’s—perhaps, where I keep/kept up on every twist and turn of their careers and purchased everything I could get my hands on, but a devotee nonetheless. I lost track around when Halcyon was released, but started catching up again with the Tom Russell album several years ago. I ordered my copy of Dancing With The Beast on the strength of her previous Blackbirds and a few minutes of listening online. Like contemporaries Eliza Gilkyson and Darrell Scott, Peters has never made an album I didn’t thoroughly enjoy.
Upon first listen yesterday, I thought “Man, these first two songs are great…they alone make the album a worthwhile purchase.” (I had unsuccessfully searched the city stores for a copy before succumbing to the ease that is Amazon.) And then songs three, four, and five played and I knew Peters had created a modern masterpiece of folk-tinged Americana. Four complete plays within 15 hours has done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.
While Peters hasn’t done a lot of co-writing historically, like Guy Clark did she sees the benefit of collaboration within established relationships. Working up with “Blackbirds” co-writer Ben Glover for a few songs here, Peters continually raises her game crafting engaging and poetic songs of visionary substance.
Teaming with Matraca Berg (another long-time Fervor Coulee fave) and Glover for “Arguing With Ghosts,” this dark song could be about the descent toward dementia, but it could also be about depression, isolation, or the frustration many feel with a world that is moving too quickly. It is the universality of the images that impacts the listener across this song of wistful reflection. “I get lost in my home town, since they tore the drive-in down”—opens the song (and album)–before smacking it home with the honest truth of “The years go by like days; sometimes the days go by like years, and I don’t know which one I hate the most.”
The weariness of the troubadour’s road is captured without sentimentality or rancour in “The Show,” and I was so enamoured with the sound of this song I got out the specs to read the near-indistinct musician credits (white on light pink!) to again find Will Kimbrough’s name! Is there anything thing this guy doesn’t play on? Like a lucky penny, he is. Scanning the remaining notes, I see him listed on most of the other tracks, along with Barry Walsh (piano, Hammond B3), naturally, Dave Roe (bass), and Jerry Douglas (Dobro) on a couple.
The title track is more pointedly about the grip of the black dog, while “Lowlands” and “Disappearing Act” both explore the theme of seclusion.
The loneliness of “Disappearing Act” morphs into a “dark cocoon,” a result of years living with diminishing returns: “People leave and they don’t come back, life is a disappearing act” Peters sings in her perfectly downy voice, revealing that “you can travel the world, you can sail the seas…still you end up cryin’ at your kitchen sink.” Within an album full of artful and challenging lyrics, I think my favourite line on the album may be “We had 40 good years, then 10 more!”
“Lowlands” is the place Peters finds herself inhabiting—”making do” with her friends—a place where “a little light gets through.” Coloured by current circumstances in her country, Peters sings that she doesn’t “burn one with my neighbour anymore, ever since he put that sticker on his bumper,” while acknowledging “Goddamn, it sure got quiet on the high road, as it led us straight down into hell.”
Peters is one of the finest contemporary singer-songwriters, and while the songs of Dancing With The Beast don’t pulse with vigour, their energy is found within lyrical magic and incredible instrumentation. Those of us missing Nanci Griffith will want to give Dancing With the Beast a listen, if only to hear a line from “Lay Low” that should have been sung by the now silent mistress of the melancholy:
“It’s a good three hours to Aberdeen, and I’ve read all the magazines, and the jokes are all played out or wearin’ thin.
So I lie back and close my eyes and I let that old sadness rise,
and I listen to ‘Hello In There’ again.”
A coming-of-age summer of teenage torment and manipulation is highlighted with wistful regret in “The Boy From Rye,” another song with enough universality to be appreciated from a distance of years, while the late night vignette of “predator or prey” plays out not without hope in “Truckstop Angel.” The vividly potent line “I swallow their indifference, but I choke on my regrets” is going to stay with me.
Across its fifty-minutes, there is so much here that resonates, and the album’s finest song may be “Wichita,” a lively-sounding Peters-Glover co-write. The combination of Doug Lancio’s and Kimbrough’s guitars complement the emotional starkness of this tale of abuse and reckoning, with Douglas’ contributions ratcheting up the tension. Long before the protagonist declares “Mama always told me if you want something done, you do it for yourself so I loaded up her gun…” the outcome of the song is apparent.
I don’t regularly review albums I purchase: there is little enough time to get to projects I am obligated to write about. Sometimes though, an album reaches across space and just grabs on. Dancing With The Beast is one of those collections, an album that will find itself on my year-end list of favourites. Gretchen Peters may sing of shades of gray, but her voice is always replete with colour. Listen.
Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald