Back to the future for Lori McKenna.
Lori McKenna has two musical careers running in tandem, the first is as one of the leading songwriters in the country genre, with her songs being covered by artists like Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Taylor Swift, Sheryl Crow and Lady Gaga, and the other is as a singer-songwriter interpreting her own songs. As is often the case, when a successful songwriter records their own songs, they can bring added insight and meaning, and Lori McKenna is one such singer-songwriter. She was also named by Americana UK writer Helen Jones as the number one artist on her AUK’s Top Ten Greatest Americana Artists. Interestingly, Lori McKenna came to her career relatively late in life, which may have helped her develop her renowned lyrical and storytelling skills, and with her twelfth album, ‘1988’, she looks back at her career and attempts to go back and make the sort of album she wished she could have made at the start of her career if she had had the experiences and knowledge she has now. She recorded again with producer Dave Cobb, and 1988 is also the year she married her husband, which reinforces the idea that this is a review of her adult life with her family and friends.
The lead track, ‘The Old Woman In Me’, looks at how a woman’s body is changed by life and how it reflects somebody’s life story. You wouldn’t want to hide the twang in Lori McKenna’s vocals, and the acoustic levels are fairly high, but the drums definitely bring a melodic rock feel to the overall sound. The sound continues on ‘Happy Children’, which Lori McKenna wrote with her own son Chris McKenna, and which celebrates the joy of having children and reflects the universal truism that when you are young, you want to be old, and when you are old, you want to be young. Hillary Lindsey duets on ‘Killing Me’, a song she wrote with Lori McKenna and Luke Laird, that looks at the baggage that can accumulate if you are too self-critical and how that baggage needs to be let go if you are to find real happiness. The melodic rock sound reinforces the message on ‘Days Are Honey’ that even bad days in a relationship look better from a distance, even if it felt like being stung at the time. The title track is upbeat, with heavily strummed acoustic guitars setting the tone for the celebration of Lori McKenna’s life with her husband, which also acknowledges how little they both knew in 1988.
‘Growing Up’ captures the time when Lori McKenna was young with ashtrays in the kitchen sink and Oprah on the TV, and while growing up is a transitory experience, you always look back on it for the rest of your life. The blue-collar life is the subject of ‘Wonder Drug’, which asks why love isn’t a wonder drug capable of overriding life’s baggage and challenges. The music may feature more electric guitars and a faster beat, but ‘The Town In Your Heart’ is a song about loss. Her home in Massachusetts is the backdrop to her personal regret at letting people down on ‘Letting People Down’. The album closes with ‘The Tunnel’, a reflection of living your life like walking through a tunnel which starts at little school.
‘1988’ continues the run of excellent albums Lori McKenna has released since 2016’s ‘The Bird & The Rifle’, and the sense of going back to the future means this set of songs has its own cohesive character. This is another record that adds to Dave Cobb’s reputation as a record producer who can mix country with rock and find new nuances in the sound. If you are already a fan of Lori McKenna, then you will definitely want to hear ‘1988’, and if you are not, it is an excellent place to get acquainted with her music.