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Mary Chapin CarpenterMary Chapin Carpenter
Album: The Things That We Are Made Of
Label: Lambent Light
Tracks: 11

Maps and journeys loom large on Carpenter's latest and highly reflective album, one which, produced by Dave Cobb, finds her at 57, looking back at roads taken and a life shaped by love, by loss, by places, by music and by other people.

"There's a shoebox full of letters" are the album's opening lines, "Something Tamed, Something Wild" a gently rolling song about the heart, of looking back and looking forward as she finds herself "staring down the great big lonesome as I'm listening for the dwindling of time." She picks up the theme again on the equally relaxed "The Middle Ages" as she wistfully sings about being at the fulcrum when "looking back's not the same as looking forward" and "all that's visible is what's left behind", the dreams distilled and discarded in avoiding a life "rendered ordinary", finally arriving at the point of reckoning where you understand "that love and kindness are all that matter now."

Driven by percussive guitar and fuelled by a musician's life on the road, "What Does It Mean To Travel" talks of the need to not be alone but, also "the freedom to be a stranger" when "sometimes you just want to be someone else unencumbered and unknown". That nomadic existence might also be seen as the core of "Livingston", ostensibly about driving to a gig at the Montana town and the contemplation that comes in the miles between. That is until you learn its dedicated to her friend, the late Ben Bullington, the doctor/singer-songwriter who died of cancer in 2013 and whose final, posthumous album features a song of the same title, giving added heartbreaking poignancy to the lines " I came to say goodbye and to hug you but I wasn't brave enough to say that, so I said see you soon and I love you."

After that, you're in need of something more buoyant to lift the spirits, something she duly provides with "Map Of My Heart" Jimmy Wallace on keyboards and the guitars cranked up as she sings about the heart's resilience and rolling with punches ("do we ever stop longing and looking for , do we ever stop feeling apart and alone do we ever stop dreaming of where we belong?"). Mike Webb takes over organ duties for the gospel-tinged "Oh Rosetta", an intimate confessional to Sister Rosetta Tharpe that addresses the power of music to both capture and help us endure the changing times and the need to stay true to our own voice - "If I listen and I cannot hear the music If I swim against the current and lose sight of the shore If the world is offered goodness but doesn't use it Oh Rosetta, what's it for?"

"Deep Deep Down Heart" and "Hand On My Back" work in tandem, the slow-paced former, underpinned by piano, deals with questions and uncertainty ("How do you know where to go? How to identify your guides? How do you see what is next in your palm or a show of cards?"), while on the latter, backed by acoustic guitar and strings, she sings in warm, dusky tones about finding reassurance in love despite the storms that come our way ("We all hit the ground, we all fall from the sky. We burn up, we break up, we wreck and we cry. But we're bound up together by sight and by pact that begins with the touch of your hand on my back").

Heading towards the final stretch, backed by mellotron, "The Blue Distance" echoes that sense of transformation from doubt and unease to the security that "In the blue distance where our lives unfurl at the edges of the sky, the beauty of the world I know you know and that's all I need." Chances are there to be taken not feared, as echoing vintage Janis Ian, but in more optimistic mood, the beautiful min-drama "Note On A Windshield" has the narrator talking of leaving her name and phone number on the car of a man she thinks she recognises in the car park because "When you find yourself out of things to believe in, apart and adrift, no point and no reason, is there nothing to fear because there's nothing to lose? If it were a choice which one would you choose?" Ultimately, the rain washes it away, but its the act that counts, for, as she says, "when there's nothing left to reveal, we are light, we are weightless and brave."

Unless (unlike me) you have the bonus edition with two extra tracks ("Between The Wars (Charleston 1937)" and "88 Constellations"), the album ends perfectly driving through night on the soft, bass-weighted title ballad, Webb on deep piano chords, acknowledging the allure of independence and the sound of your own breathing, but recognising who we are and the need for human connection:

And I remember wishing for some other life than this one I've claimed
How often have I been convinced how eagerly I'd make that trade
Then all at once I see your face
and the summer night and the open door
dimmer now but not erased
and I know what these are for

It's a beguiling, contemplative album about a road travelled, about the journey, the destination and the miles in-between that shape us. Share it with her.

Mike Davies