Carly Pearce's '29: Written in Stone' is a Divorce Record for the Ages
The legend-in-the-making's new album is a commercial country masterclass.
As I see it, there are two archetypes for the modern country divorce record. The first is Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, a deeply introspective album that’s admirably free of salacious details and personal digs. The second is the Chicks’ Gaslighter, which details Natalie Maines’ split from Adrian Pasdar with a queasy degree of specificity; an entire song is dedicated to the pair of tights that Pasdar’s lover allegedly left on Maines’ boat while they were still married.
Carly Pearce’s 29: Written in Stone — an expansion of her 29 EP from earlier this year, hence the unwieldy title — splits the difference. Pearce doesn’t go the Lambert route of turning the other cheek, but she also doesn’t offer the type of incriminating particulars that might potentially violate a confidentiality clause. Rather, across fifteen finely crafted country songs, Pearce tells a love-gone-wrong story that is light on damning specifics but heavy on witty lyricism.
Like the best work of so many of her forebears, Pearce’s narrative centers on a Bad Man: a whiskey-drinking, womanizing charmer who seems to take sadistic pleasure in disappointing his partner. Pearce mines country tropes without ever veering into cliché, a neat trick she pulls off both by the strength of her songwriting and the album’s richly textured sound. Standouts like “Should’ve Known Better” and “What He Didn’t Do” marry major hooks with organic twang in a seamless manner that recalls early Chicks albums; the lengthy outro to “Easy Going” wouldn’t feel out of place on Fly, in particular.
The two duets are where Pearce most obviously places herself in this classic country lineage. First there’s “Dear Miss Loretta,” which supplies fellow Kentuckian Patty Loveless with some of the album’s slickest one-liners: “A lifetime of pain was three minutes long / And you weren’t ashamed / When the world sang along,” Loveless sighs in the second verse.
Even better is “Never Wanted to Be That Girl” with Ashley McBryde, a two-sided story song à la Loveless’ “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” and K.T. Oslin’s “Hold Me.” But instead of allowing her cheating husband a chance to speak, Pearce takes the more radical approach of giving voice to the unwitting other woman. “I never wanted to be that girl,” Pearce and McBryde sing in the chorus, and we believe each of them.
The album arrives a week after Kacey Musgraves’ star-crossed, a stranger and more somber testament to a high-profile divorce, and it’s tempting to draw comparisons between the two. But 29: Written in Stone has more in common with Musgraves’ earlier work; given the high degree of wordplay, it’s no surprise to see Nashville hitmakers and former Musgraves collaborators Shane McAnally, Brandy Clark, Josh Osborne and Natalie Hemby listed among Pearce’s co-writers.
Indeed, just as Musgraves seems to have lost some of the sharpness that made her older songs sparkle, Pearce is turning in her cleverest compositions to date. “You’re hittin’ that bottle while I’m hittin’ rock bottom,” she laments on “Your Drinkin’ My Problem,” the title of which sounds like the inverse of a lost Gary Stewart hit. Then there’s “Liability,” a loquacious number that bemoans an unfaithful partner’s “look-me-in-the-eye ability” (and yes, his “lie ability”).
But there are also moments where the lyrics are so restrained as to resemble plainspoken poetry. On the title track, Pearce describes twenty-nine as “The year that I got married and divorced,” a turn of phrase that’s deceptively simple and acutely painful. “Day One,” which also appeared on the original EP, is full of such lines: “By fall or by winter, I’ll barely remember / How hard this first night was / When all I could do / Is try to get through day one.” The song’s hopeful tone is belied by how convincingly Pearce conveys the heartbreak.
When Pearce emerged in 2017 with “Every Little Thing” — a stirring ballad whose unfussy, dobro-heavy arrangement conjured commercial country’s 90s heyday — it remained to be seen if the song signaled a return-to-form for the genre or the dying gasp of mainstream excellence. But if the exemplary recent work of Pearce and her female peers is any indication, that old-time sound ain’t goin’ nowhere.
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