“Highly anticipated” is a phrase that I feel is over-used these days when it comes to new music, but with a gap of over three and a half years since her last studio album, the Grammy nominated “Big Day In A Small Town”, I feel justified in using it to describe Brandy Clark’s upcoming release. Yes, Brandy has definitely tested the patience of her loyal following but believe me, that patience will be more than rewarded on 6th March when the Nashville based artist puts her latest album “Your Life Is A Record“ (Warner Records) out into the world, and I feel privileged to have had early access to this collection of eleven songs, all of which she co-penned.
She had already told me in our interview for Think Country last October (HERE) that it’s a much more personal body of work than she has put out before, and to my mind it definitely has moments where she fully exposes a vulnerability in both her writing and delivery that has only been hinted at in the past.
Working once again with producer/multi instrumentalist Jay Joyce, he has described it as a “ break up album” and indeed Brandy has mentioned in a couple of recent articles that she has come out of a long-term relationship since their last collaboration. And while there are definitely some extremely pensive heart breakers in the mix (whether by design or osmosis) which is to be expected on a country album anyway, don’t worry as Brandy’s trademark humour, storytelling and observational writing is well represented too.
Not wanting to make the same record twice, Jay and Brandy took a totally different approach this time, initially recording each track acoustically using just four musicians (themselves alongside Giles Reaves and Jedd Hughes) before adding a few electric instruments where deemed necessary. In addition, The Memphis Strings and Horns which were intended to feature on just two songs sounded such a perfect fit that they ended up being used to a greater or lesser degree on all the tracks (with stunning arrangements by Lester Snell) and goodness, I absolutely adore their contributions which add a different dimension to anything we have heard from Brandy in the past. On the ballads in particular the melancholic cello and sweeping violin accompaniment is achingly beautiful, and I also love the punctuation the horn section provides, sometimes subtle (that flute!!) and at other times more dramatic……. while still an album rooted in the country music which is at Brandy’s heart, hints of jazz and blues come through as a result.
Looking at the writing credits I noticed the names of many of Brandy’s favourite co-writers, in particular her good friend Jessie Jo Dillon as well as the likes of Shane McAnally, Scott Stepakoff and Luke Laird, but there are some first time collaborations on there too including Chase McGill, Barry Dean and Jonathan Singleton . As well as writing specifically for this album Brandy has also delved into her back catalogue and found two songs that were previously recorded by other artists but are perfect fits for this project, and there’s also a duet in the mix …..both firsts for her when it comes to studio albums as far as I’m aware. So, there’s familiarity as well as unchartered territory represented here in many respects, which fans may have already gauged from the few songs made available pre-release and being performed at recent concerts, and all of this made me even more curious as to what to expect as I slipped the CD into my player.
It’s an album I have now listened to countless times, I was originally planning to pick out a few of my favourite tracks for mentions here – I very rarely write a “ track by track” album review – but given this is to be posted pre-release I thought some of you may be interested in a bit more detail about what to expect next Friday by way of a few lines and thoughts about each song. Oh and another reason for doing this is that my favourites change with each listen!
1. “I’ll Be The Sad Song” (Brandy Clark/Jessie Jo Dillon/Chase McGill)
This stunning ballad doesn’t so much “kick off” the album but eases you in gently, with Brandy’s emotional vocals and the soaring string section washing over you. The clever concept in the song’s opening lines provide the album’s title……. “If your life is a record, people and places are the songs” . Reflecting on a past relationship that has resulted in the couple becoming each others sad songs on their respective records, the fact that Brandy adds “at least we had a song” shows that there’s no regret that their paths crossed. The second verse in particular turns me into a blubbering mess, the track ripped my heart out on first listen, and continues to do so every time I hear it.
2. “Long Walk” ( Brandy Clark/Jessie Jo Dillon/Jesse Frasure)
This track couldn’t come as more of a contrast, being one of the album’s upbeat and highly amusing ones with an appropriately cheeky bluegrass-style introduction. Inspired by a phrase Brandy remembers her mother using (and who she references here) she has described it as the “ kiss off “song that every album needs, aimed at a critical neighbour who has no right to throw stones from her “glass house on the corner of my street” . Witty lyrics that Brandy has become known for are present in abundance, and with its catchy chorus I can see this one becoming a popular singalong song when played live.
3. “Love Is A Fire“ (Brandy Clark/Jessie Jo Dillon/Shane McAnally)
Things slow down again with this dreamy, bluesy waltz that is an ode to love but also comes with a warning. Just like fire, once it takes hold you have no control over what happens, “It can’t be contained, no it won’t be tamed” . The clever analogies between the two continue throughout, there’s no use fighting your feelings once that spark has been ignited and you just have to give in and “go down in flames” . The haunting string arrangement is perfection, particularly in the choruses, and Brandy delivers its lyrics with an incredible intensity that makes it one of the most sensual songs I’ve heard from her.
4. “Pawn Shop” ( Brandy Clark/Troy Verges)
One of the tracks I referred to earlier as having previously been recorded by another artist (Shelley Skidmore on her excellent self titled 2016 EP) this is one of the album’s more traditional country songs both sonically and lyrically. Brandy has such a wonderful knack of observing life, describing characters and telling their stories, all of which are demonstrated here. We hear about two people pawning their once treasured possessions due to changes in personal circumstances, something they never imagined they’d be doing and at the same time giving up on the dreams the items once represented. Apparently such shops have always fascinated Brandy, the items on sale marking endings and beginnings for both their original owner for whoever buys them. A gem of a song.
5.”Who You Thought I Was“ (Brandy Clark/Jessie Jo Dillon/Jonathan Singleton)
The album’s lead single (which as I write is in the top twenty in the US Americana Singles chart) sees Brandy once again examining a past relationship, as on the album opener, but this time it’s via a much more upbeat song in every sense of the word. The verses take an amusing look at her childhood dreams (like many children’s, pretty crazy but they have made for a great video!) but then in the chorus she gets much more profound. Failing to live up to the expectations her partner had of her has been a life lesson, the only ambition she has now is to be a better person in the future. She wants to be “at least almost close to worth your love”, she tells them, ”who you thought I was”. The single gave everyone a first taste of the wonderful contributions from the strings and horns, too. Thanks to John Prine, by the way, for inspiring this one by a seemingly throw away comment at an awards ceremony!
6. “Apologies” (Brandy Clark/Scott Stepakoff/Forest Glen Whitehead)
This is a song Brandy has been playing live for quite some time now and which I have always loved, so it’s great to finally get to hear the studio version. What a beautifully subtle arrangement Jay Joyce has chosen to use too for this ballad, a heartfelt plea by Brandy for her ex to forgive her for unintentionally breaking their heart . The tables have now turned, and her heart is breaking as her apologies are falling on deaf ears and without that forgiveness she can’t forgive herself. Another song delivered from deep in her heart.
7.”Bigger Boat” (Brandy Clark/Adam Wright)
After all that intensity, just like that we have another fun and lighter hearted track…..if you can describe a song about the mess the world is in like that! Inspired by a line from one of Brandy’s all time favourite movies, “ Jaws” , it contains political commentary which is naturally rooted in what is occurring in the States but is equally as relevant in so many other countries that you don’t need to be American to relate to it. And that is definitely apparent by the reaction I have witnessed it evoking when played live in Europe recently. Sparring political parties, the effects of climate change, ever changing advice about lifestyle choices….all and more are brought to the fore here in Brandy’s own imitably amusing way. Recorded as a duet, Brandy is joined by the legendary Randy Newman and you can sense the fun they had during the process. His deep, gruff vocals contrast starkly with Brandy’s, making for an interesting collaboration.
8.”Bad Car” (Brandy Clark/Jason Saenz)
The second song Brandy has included from her back catalogue (this one cut by Terri Clark in 2014) and in a similar vein to “ Pawn Shop” it looks at the memories that are embroiled in possessions. The attention to detail when Brandy is describing the car she has to part with are just fantastic, it has seen her through so much over the years and this is no less of a break up song than if the car had been a person. You can feel the pain in her voice as she watches it being towed away, at the same time trying to console herself….. “I know it’s a piece of junk”. Another of the tracks which will particularly appeal to those loving Brandy’s classic country sound.
9.”Who Broke Whose Heart” (Brandy Clark/Shane McAnally)
Fooled by the title into expecting a soul searching ballad, I couldn’t have been more wrong! This punchy, jazzy song is a middle finger to over-thinking what went wrong in a relationship and caused its breakdown, ultimately all that really matters is the love that once existed. I honestly nearly spat out my coffee when I first heard the tag line …..when Brandy and Shane get together you never know what will happen! I can’t wait to hear this live…sadly not one that will make it onto the radio I think!
10. “Can We Be Strangers” (Brandy Clark/Jessie Jo Dillon/Clinjt Daniels)
This song really destroys me, it has ever since I first heard it live and with the beautiful album orchestration it hits even harder. It’s a “can we rewind to a time we never knew each other?” plea from someone who doesn’t want to have any type of feelings, good or bad. about their ex and who is plagued by things that evoke their memory everywhere they turn. That middle eight too…..goodness!
11.”The Past Is The Past“ (Brandy Clark/Barry Dean/Luke Laird)
This really is a stunner of a moving on ballad which possibly contains some of my favourite lines of the entire eleven tracks………“Find your future in that pedal on the floor” ……..“This is where the memories we made start catching dust in a picture frame”…….. “We say goodbye like it helps but we know it doesn’t“ .
Brandy’s soft vocal delivery above the guitar arpeggios is almost conversational, philosophical for sure, pouring her heart out while coming to terms with the reality that things really are over. The song fades out beautifully after its repetitive and hypnotic final line, a perfect choice as album closer.
While this release is definitely a lot more introspective at times than anything Brandy has given us in the past, once again she has tackled subjects which are highly relatable. Her willingness to bear her heart and soul, as well as be open to stepping out of her comfort zone by experimenting with different musical styles along the way, seem to indicate the courage and confidence of an artist happy in her own skin and who is taking control.
Rather than a break up album, I prefer to describe “Your Life Is A Record” slightly less brutally as being about letting go and moving forward…….whether that is to people, memories or possessions, or even maybe to the constraints and expectations of country radio.
But I’ll leave the final say on this amazing release to the artist herself, who as usual has the perfect way with words …….
“sometimes you have to have endings to have these beautiful beginnings . I hope people listening find themselves in me finding myself”.
Preorder/Presave “ Your Life Is A Record “ here https://brandyclark.lnk.to/YourLifeIsARecord
……the album artwork is absolutely gorgeous, by the way and I’m happy to hear that it will be available on vinyl in a few months.
There’s an extensive US tour to promote the album kicking off in Nashville in late March (opening artists on varying dates recently announced as being Kelsey Waldon, Cheley Tackett, Aubrie Sellers and Alex Hall) and there are strong rumours of European dates later this year.