One of Americana’s most talented songwriters takes another sizable leap forward
You don’t hear many drumsticks or cymbals on Mary Gauthier’s new disc, Between Daylight and Dark. Instead, the rhythm comes mostly from brushes, mallets and fretless bass.
Combined with the shadowy guitars and seemingly distant keyboards, this pulse evokes those empty, echoing moments of crisis when all the usual distractions and excuses have evaporated. Such crises are the subject of many songs on Gauthier’s ?fth album, a triumph that should catapult her to the forefront of Americana singer/songwriters.
The title track describes an abandoned lover pulling into her driveway and just sitting there, watching the sunset and ?re?ies, and the breeze in the grasses. Normally these would be comforting sights, but tonight they’re reproachful reminders of the happiness that now seems beyond grasp. The melody is as lovely as the neighborhood, but the hollowed-out arrangement and desolate vocal indicate why she has to back the car out of the driveway and keep driving until the oblivion of dark allows her to return home. Gauthier (pronounced GO-shay) doesn’t sum up the lesson in the chorus; she allows the verbal description and musical mood to speak for themselves. Because we have to put the pieces together, we go that much deeper into the song.
Such detailed description and suggestive music can be found throughout the album. “Snakebit,” for example, depicts a woman staring at a shattered cruci?x on the ?oor and listening to crying children from the next room. She seems surprised to ?nd herself holding a gun, just like her daddy before her. The lyrics don’t explain what she’s planning to do with the pistol, but the rumbling mallets and held-out slide-guitar notes crystallize the way fate can push us into places we never wanted to be.
“Can’t Find the Way” is one of the best songs yet written about the Katrina disaster. It’s sung from the perspective of a woman in a Houston apartment or Baton Rouge trailer who longs for her old home in New Orleans but lacks the money to rebuild it or replace it. As she shares the harrowing memory of being ferried by boat from her ?ooded home to an elevated stretch of Interstate 10, her slow, hymn-like lament makes it clear that she now feels as isolated in her home-away-from-home as she once did on that concrete island.
“Thanksgiving” is a plaintive prison song written from the perspective of the women who wait outside for hours to visit their lost men. “Before You Leave,” a farewell to a departing lover, hovers between the wish to appear mature and reasonable and the impulse to grovel for one last embrace, a tension echoed by the forlorn steel guitar and adrenaline-pumping bass drum. “I Ain’t Leaving” is a country-gospel number about resisting an old habit of running away every time there’s a problem. Gauthier sings it with just enough doubt to imply that she’s trying to convince herself as much as her lover.
Gauthier has long been a remarkable lyricist, but on this album she emerges as a special singer and composer as well. She’s able to convey the mixed feelings of “Before You Leave” and “I Ain’t Leaving” without becoming muddled, and she creates and splendidly executes a dramatic melodic leap in the love song “Please.” She had lots of help making this breakthrough, co-writing songs with the likes of Fred Eaglesmith and Hayes Carll, and enlisting producer Joe Henry to create the expansive soundscapes that frame the songs.
It’s not a perfect record. A few tracks go on too long, and the lack of uptempo songs creates a counter-productive sameness of mood. But here are the kind of understated songs of personal crisis that Lucinda Williams and Nanci Grif?th used to write before they lost the knack. When Gauthier stands by a doorway in “The Same Road” and tells a lover she’s leaving despite their lingering affection, you can hear the tug-of-war in her heart between the temptation to backslide into old bad habits and the resolution to move forward. Moments like this—as easy to recall as they are dif?cult to capture—are the stuff of great pop music.