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Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Dirt and the Stars’

She's making the best and most profound music of her career.

Written by Bob Paxman
Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter’s ‘The Dirt and the Stars’
Mary Chapin Carpenter; Photo credit: Aaron Farrington

Mary Chapin Carpenter is the friend and confidante we’d all cherish to have in our lives – intelligent, witty, with an added capacity for knowing just which words to say. That reliable friend returns with a new album The Dirt and the Stars, replete with Carpenter’s trademarks of profound and insightful lyrics, well-aimed barbs, and sharp, expressive vocals. We’ve come to expect those elements from the Grammy and CMA award-winning artist, but this time she’s actually outdone herself. It would hardly be a stretch to declare that Carpenter is producing the finest music of her 30-plus-year career.

The Dirt and the Stars finds Carpenter contemplating issues such as loneliness and dissolved relationships, even the distorted hypocrisy of politics, in a philosophical manner. She gets her message across with lyrical passages that could easily pass for straight poetry, if there were no melody attached. Consider this line from “Farther Along and Further In,” the opening cut: There’s a crack in the armor, an opening/My heart seeing out and my eyes see in/Where they’ve never seen before. It’s a fine rumination about having experience but still willing to learn at the same time. In the timely “Asking for a Friend,” Carpenter sums up the eternal human dilemma with some thoughtful questions like, When there’s nothing left to say, how do you say it?/ When there’s nowhere else to go, have you reached the end? Brevity and soul – pure perfection. Suffice to say that no one’s writing them like this.

Mary Chapin Carpenter; Cover art courtesy of Thirty Tigers

It’s not all navel-gazing and deep, dark discussion, though. “Secret Keepers” shines with an upbeat flair, reminding us to, “Spare a little kindness when you meet someone/You never really know what they’re carrying around.” That’s an especially worthy thought in today’s divisive climate. In a hopeful vein, Carpenter assures that “It’s OK to Be Sad,” a song that could encapsulate our psychological state during the COVID lockdowns. It has the ring of present-day timeliness, although, apparently, Carpenter wrote this and the album’s additional tunes well before the dire effects of the pandemic.

Carpenter also turns wryly political with “American Stooge,” reportedly pointed at South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham but could easily apply to most sitting politicians of the current era. The song opens with a funky bass-drum-keyboards groove, leading in to Carpenter’s smooth and satiric vocal. “When he’s not kissin’ the ring and levelin’ threats/He’s proud to be your favorite hypocrite,” she sings. Whoever the intended target is must be feeling the sting, in a most sensitive part of the anatomy.

The album closes with the anthemic “Between the Dirt and the Stars,” a multi-themed discourse on a relationship gone sour, loneliness, and healing, encompassing more than seven minutes and bringing everything to a whirling crescendo. The repetition of “wild, wild horses” conjures up images of The Rolling Stones and perhaps hellion days gone by. It’s a finely-crafted masterpiece of lyric and song production, culminating in a lengthy instrumental passage, giving you time to ponder what you’ve just heard.

Time and space actually mark two of the album’s defining characteristics. Nothing is rushed, each song is allowed to build with nice opening sequences. You have a chance to settle into the selections and be ready to absorb them. Carpenter matches the production strategy with her eloquent, clear delivery, enunciating the words instead of seeing how many she can fit into a single phrase, the maddening bane of many current singers. She can be comforting, as in “It’s OK to Be Sad,” cajoling with “American Stooge,” and just downright wise in “All Broken Hearts Break Differently.” For Carpenter fans in particular, this is a welcome work from a trusted friend.