For several years now, Brandy Clark has been regarded as one of the finest songwriters working in Nashville. With a pair of releases under her belt already, it’s not a stretch to think a storyteller of her immense skill could easily get by on crafting an album with relatively straight-ahead music and arrangements, letting her gifted pen handle the heavy lifting. But if any further proof is needed to grasp that Clark is far more than merely a brilliant wordsmith, Your Life is a Record, her resplendent new album, makes the case with stunning authority.
Teamed with producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Little Big Town), Clark backdrops her vivid, intimate tales with string arrangements and acoustic instrumentation. Inspired by Bobbie Gentry’s iconic Ode to Billy Joe and its inventive, dramatic use of orchestral arrangements, Clark and Joyce proffer something far grander than what many might expect from a songwriter-driven folk-styled country record.
The lively, jaunty “Long Walk” features subtly swelling strings augmenting the song, not overtaking it, as was often the case in the ‘70s when countrypolitan records were often slathered and saturated with all sorts of overwhelming, stringed studio theatrics. The Gentry inspiration is clear, and admirably employed in “Love is a Fire.” The strings swing with a soulful R&B flare, making the track sound like something Michael Kiwanuka or Leon Bridges might record. That cinematic drama is upped in the smoky “Can We Be Strangers,” thanks to colorful punches of sax and trumpet.
Opening the album, “I’ll Be the Sad Song,” carefully begins with an acoustic guitar backed by low, almost bellowing strings as Clark offers the line “If you’re life is a record, people and places are the songs / There’ll be slow ones and there’ll be fast ones, looking forwards and looking backwards / On that two-lane town you call home.” Right off the bat, Clark displays a master’s touch when it comes to painting a picture for the listener, setting a scene yet to unfold.
Such strikingly lucid scene-setting is on heart-tugging display in the mandolin-enhanced “Pawn Shop.” With more of an Americana folk-rock vibe to it than the rest of the record, Clark gently, but assertively relays the story of a woman selling her wedding ring in order to fund an uncertain new beginning. With a breezy melody not all that dissimilar from Kathy Mattea’s 1987 hit “18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” Clark’s “Who You Thought I Was,” features her singing “I used to wanna be Elvis, and drive a pink Cadillac car / That’s why I learned to play guitar.”
When digesting the work of a songwriter of Clark’s caliber, it’s all too easy to assume Clark is singing about her in every song, or that every song is comprised of circumstances ripped directly from her own everyday life, without any artistic tweaks or embellishments. But just as Jason Isbell or John Moreland, other songwriters supremely skilled at making fictional stories feel lifelike, Clark embodies every song in a highly personal way.
Another sign Clark is a writer with few peers is her seeming ease at giving the mundane and unsightly an emotional fragility and undeniable beauty. On the outset, “Bad Car” is a wistful ode to an actual “bad car” that leaks oil and always needs a jump, though Clark deftly maneuvers the song to make the old clunker a vehicle not for getting from point A to point B, but for life’s most treasured, impactful moments. And having the legendary songwriter and performer Randy Newman join her for the bouncy, humorous “Bigger Boat,” is another way Clark proves her prowess. Even Newman’s famously ragged voice, with flutes and a piano dancing around, can keep this song from feeling cohesively in place with the rest of this beautiful album.