Recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, 57-year-old Gretchen Peters has released a string of albums as a solo artist and, whilst there may often be the familiar cosiness of traditional country scattered throughout each offering, there’s a lot more to her skills.
Peters is, undoubtedly, a gifted lyricist and has found inspiration from all quarters in the past: 2007’s Burnt Toast & Offerings was an intensely personal affair, written in the wake of her own divorce after 23 years of marriage. 2012’s Hello Cruel World is often cited as her best collection and again, Peters drew on character testing events for songs with a friends tragic suicide and her sons transgender revelation providing some of the fuel for a bleak, despairing collection.
Blackbirds, Peters’ eighth studio effort, represents her take on mortality. When writing first began in the summer of 2013, she found herself going through a short phase that would see Hugh Grant’s agent throwing his client’s hat into the ring for the starring role if ever this period were put to film. Three funerals and a wedding during this time ultimately gave Peters her latest creative push, self-declaring that “it dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older”.
Compelling storytelling is a rare quality but Peters excels in this respect for Blackbirds, a trait that leaves the listener paying close attention to every word uttered. The stunning title track, along with its closing reprise, tells the tale of a crime scene in Louisiana where she declares, “no one saw me come and no one saw me go, only the blackbirds and you”; its opening scratches of electric guitar drawl and sparse vocals paint an ominous canvas before a captivating chorus takes hold.
There are moments of more traditional country throughout: Black Ribbons sees the appearance of a banjo appearing en route to a satisfying climax of instrumental prowess whilst The House On Auburn Street recalls where Peters grew up in Pelham, New York for a reflective number. When You Comin’ Home featuring Jimmy La Fave is another solid cut, skipping along to harmonica, acoustic and steel guitar as a standard country duet forms; Nashville’s slide guitar and skittering drum pattern provide more recognised country fodder and When All You Got Is A Hammer – a track that has enjoyed considerable airplay in the UK – probably represents the best highlight of the more traditional sounding tracks. Distorted guitar leads to an infectious number awash with compelling melody, brilliant guitar solos and an over-riding sense of darkness as the subject matter turns its attention to a war veteran struggling to adjust to life back home.
But it’s the piano led numbers that elevate Blackbirds to a higher plain. The mesmerising Everything Falls Away opens to atmospherically strong piano chords, Peters’ gorgeous vocal and strings, sounding refreshingly beautiful despite a chord sequence that bears an uncanny resemblance to the chorus of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game. The slower, sparse Jubilee then oozes emotion as it tells of the circle of life and is genuinely a contender for the most beautiful, spine-tingling track of the year so far, evoking memories of Joni Mitchell’s finest album, Blue, before heart-wrenching strings seal the deal.
Perhaps best known for writing songs for others rather than herself, such as Martina McBride, Neil Diamond and Etta James, Peters’ own material has been criminally overlooked for years; despite a strong UK following, it’s only Hello Cruel World that has charted, reaching the dizzy heights of Number 70. Having enjoyed a successful songwriting partnership with Canadian rocker Bryan Adams for years, maybe it’s finally time for one of Peters’ own albums to hog the spotlight. With Blackbirds poignantly beautiful in many places, it may just be the one to do so.