Lori McKenna's third studio album could be her break-out, career-defining album. This is a masterpiece of Americana, with a more gritty look and feel than her previous albums. The press have compared this album to Bruce Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town and John Mellencamp's Scarecrow. The title reveals the theme of much of the album: tough living in blue-collar Anytown, U.S.A.
The album opener Bible Song sets the stage for small-town living, about the narrator's 24-year-old cousin who killed himself, leaving two kids and a wife.
Each song introduces us to a vignette of life in Bittertown. McKenna wrote Lone Star after going to a Beck concert and thinking about the rednecks that might have beaten him up in high school and now work at the Texaco. Told from the bully's perspective at the concert, they "tell all the pretty girls in the beer line how you are an old good friend of mine."
In Stealing Kisses" we're introduced to a housewife isolated at home, thinking about how she arrived here: "I was stealing kisses from a boy. Now I'm begging affection from a man." My Sweetheart is a sparsely instrumented country song sung by a woman constantly told how popular her boyfriend is. As a result, she becomes afraid of being left. Immediately following is the hard-rocking song Cowardly Lion, sung by an older and wiser woman, who is still dealing with someone who might leave. Despite living in Bittertown and all this talk of fleeing, the characters in One Man and Silver Bus seem to have rationalized staying put.
The depth of the songwriting is amplified by the melodies. A few tracks on the album are pop gems that will stick in your head: Mr. Sunshine, Pour, and One Kiss Goodnight. The most catchy song is Monday Afternoon, with its David Lindley-like guitar work and exuberant vocals:
With the sepia-toned album cover and McKenna's plain clothes, Bittertown is more Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris than Dar Williams. But, it also represents the most heavily instrumented album in McKenna's collection. Don't fear folk-music purists — the instrumentation is tasteful and appropriate, adding to the song, rather than detracting. One of the things that I like about McKenna's albums are the strong vocals in the mix. The sound is consistently exceptional throughout this and her other studio albums.
Previous fans of McKenna will be at home with Bittertown, even as she has evolved in this new direction. Whether this is a more permanent move and McKenna takes up the female Springsteen mantle remains to be seen. But, it's a move that apparently she feels very comfortable in.
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