Bleak reflections of an ending but not without hope.
In fifteen tracks Alex Mabey presents in words and music her exit from an unhealthy marriage. This emotional tide runs deep as she lays out with stark honesty how she came to be in such a wretched situation, her feelings throughout and with glimmers of hope, a better future. There is a huge sense of catharsis as she lets her grief flow. Sonically she and the musicians gathered around her create a correspondingly tense atmosphere, a new dimension to the blend of country and rock that characterised much of her previous five albums. Her vocal range sweeps from a folk whisper to rasps of gut-wrenching heartache. Time and effort is needed to get into this album but both are richly rewarded.
With one exception Mabey wrote or co-wrote all the songs. Nate Dugger on guitar, pianist Pete Wasner, bassist Brian Allen and co-writer and vocalist Tony Lucca are the core band, all brought together by Casey Wasner’s impressive production and engineering.
The title is a useful introduction to what the record is all about. As Mabey says, “It’s called ‘The Waiting Room’ because it recalls the period of time before finding the answer—the miracle—that I was waiting for, both with my broken marriage and my health”.
Opening track ‘Someone Like Me’ has Mabey telling a friend her concerns about the impact of these songs on her ex. Just write what you think replied the friend so, beginning in almost a whisper to the gentlest of acoustic guitar she reflects, “I hesitate to sing this song/ ‘Fraid of what you’ll think/ But I’ll set you down to help someone like me”. That third line encapsulates the album, Mabey’s hope that her experience might be of some use to others.
‘These Wings’ soars and plummets musically and vocally reflecting the tumult Mabey went through in deciding whether to stay or leave. Having separated from her husband she wrote ‘Love Me Enough’ with Lucca. A dark introspection at a time when blame and anger could dominate, Mabey instead focuses on acceptance that the good times they had enjoyed but could never be brought back.
While acceptance is a crucial step it does not eliminate other emotions. ‘Broken Bridges’ is about truth. With minimal guitar and bass Mabey realises exactly what she has to do. In every syllable, she adds conviction that no matter how painful, this was a path she had to take. That clarity doesn’t come without regret. ‘Irely Sue’ is a whimsical look at the daughter she will not have, “Pictured you with brown hair and green eyes”.
Mabey’s regret extends to her husband too. ‘Freedom is Only for the Brave’ His liberation had to be from alcoholism. With deep compassion she beseeched him to save himself. The piano crescendo tries to pull him free but without success. ‘Fighting Waves’ continues her husband’s turmoil. The weariness in her voice gives away a sense of inevitability that he will never change his ways.
As the canary’s cry down the mine signalled danger, ‘Canary’ warns of the similar toxicity Mabey attached to her marriage. The rock guitars of Duggan and Drew Holcomb blast a way to safely. Mabey considers this a favourite of the album.
Sustaining her throughout all this was her profound faith in God. ‘Shepherd on the Mountain’ reflects her belief not so much in a conventional church-going sense but the comfort Mabey derives from a God all around her in nature. Whether on the surround-sound of the big production or the ‘Raw’ Version” you don’t have to share her beliefs to know what she’s getting at. For such an expressive writer adding a cover seems superfluous but Patty Griffin’s ‘Up to the Mountain’ is not surplus baggage. Selected because it tells her story, she must derive comfort in this gospel song.
‘Wait’ closes the album in dramatic fashion. By now living in a cabin far away in Washington Mabey’s long, echoing vocals, a cappella and strings exude the catharsis of her experience. To conclude with another quote from Mabey, “Some people never leave their waiting rooms. I want this album to sit with people in theirs and give them comfort first, then empowerment to get free”.