Critics have a way of anointing musical saviors when none are needed. A prominent recent example occurred in the second half of the ‘90s, when critics decided that the R&B singer D’Angelo was going to save his genre—R&B’s Jesus—as if the rest of his peers were stuck, stagnated, inactive. The latest entry for sainthood is the country singer Brandy Clark, who just released the album 12 Stories. She has been hailed as a twangy savior by the likes of Slate, NPR, and New York Magazine.
Of course, when Jesus and saving are invoked, it usually has more meaning for writers than for the genre of music in question. After all, redemption is in the eye of the beholder. Millions of R&B fans in the ’90s would not have said that the genre needed to be saved from itself, but critics who didn’t appreciate the contemporary R&B production of the time found it easy to get on board with D’Angelo and his explicit homages to classic ’70s soul and funk. Similarly, the critical embrace of Clark has a lot to do with the way she appeals to critical biases. Clark is a woman in a genre—country—with a woman problem. She also advocates for tolerance and weed-smoking, both in her own songs, and in the songs she’s helped write for others (notably ones she’s put together with Kacey Musgraves, whose Same Trailer, Different Park is up for the best country album of the year at this week’s CMA awards).
Country especially suffers in the critical establishment because of culture clash—it’s the hardest genre for critics to embrace, and some music publications hardly cover it at all, effectively turning their back on a large swathe of music listeners. This is hardly a new development. The ‘60s tunes of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens were much praised, but after Haggard recorded a pair of songs that were embraced by a resurgent right-wing, and Owens acted a fool on the rural-themed TV show Hee-Haw, their reputations suffered in the press. One writer famously called Haggard the “Spiro Agnew of music.” Calling a country singer a savior is basically the other side of the same coin. Either you’re Agnew because the right-wing embraces your tunes, or you’re Jesus-like for espousing a certain brand of open-mindedness.
Clark’s in the latter camp, making it possible for critics to see 12 Stories as impeccable country-pop. The album’s full of gently coaxed guitars, emitting notes that curl and land softly. The piano is firm but never pushy; there’s an injection of slide guitar or violin when things are melancholy, a harmonica when the tone gets more rowdy. Sometimes the tempo picks up on a song like “Crazy Women” or the shuffling “Get High,” but Clark likes to take her time, rolling easy with tasteful harmonies and lingering lines.
There may be 12 stories, but there are two themes: love and other drugs. “What’ll Keep Me Out Of Heaven” is a sensitive tale of cheating, with “so many shades of grey,” but “this is black and white/ he’s some stranger’s husband/ I’m some stranger’s wife.” “Hold My Hand” uses a full beat so Clark can remind her lover to get with the program and hold her damn hand already. “In Some Corner” could almost be an old southern-soul song, like what happens in the aftermath of James Carr’s “Dark End Of The Street.” The thrill of illicit rendezvous is gone, and the pair are separate, lonely, and depressed.
In “Stripes,” Clark finds her man with another woman, leading to one of the album’s sharpest sequences. “I got a pistol and I got a bullet,” sings Clark, “and a pissed off finger just itching to pull it.” But it turns out that she can’t shoot the jerk, because she doesn’t “look good in orange” and she “hate[s] stripes.” Clark winks at a classic country trope, the scorned-woman revenge tale, and one-ups it. It’s cooler to walk away. Also, let’s be clear about who’s causing most of the trouble here: “crazy women are made by crazy men,” she sings.
There are plenty of opiates that keep the masses going, allowing people to persist in a world of infidelity, crappy jobs, and limited opportunity. “We pray to Jesus and we play the lotto,” Clark sings, “cause there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow.” A housewife, “bored with her husband/ tired of the same old list of things to,” sits down and smokes a joint, because “sometimes the only way to get by/ is to get high.” (perhaps Clark and the rapper Nas should collaborate?) “Take A Little Pill” shows how another mom ends up hooked on prescription medication.
Clark’s tunes are well-executed, tragic, amusing. There’s no glorification here, and little judgment, just explanation. She depicts situations that could happen to anyone, things you might not even know are going on—those “crazy women” she sings about “keep their [male-induced] crazy hidden” most of the time. As for many critics, when it comes to country music, it’s a lot harder for them to mask their crazy.