2010 was by all accounts a challenging and dramatic year for Gretchen Peters, one in which, as she puts it, “the universe threw its best and its worst at me.” As its wry title suggests, Peters’s new album Hello Cruel World takes its inspiration from some of those upheavals. But it does so in a manner that’s suggestive and oblique rather than obvious, cloaking its revelations in carefully drawn character sketches that, for the most part, transcend standard-issue soul-baring. The result is an accomplished album that ranks as one of Peters’s most satisfying releases to date.
Drawing together a classy group of collaborators including guitarists Doug Lancio and Will Kimborough, bassist Viktor Krauss, trumpeter Vinnie Ciesielski and keyboardist (and new Mr. Peters) Barry Walsh, Hello Cruel World sounds assured and confident from the off. Blurring genres - folk, country, jazz and rock - with consummate ease, the record flows smoothly but not blandly, its textured arrangements sometimes incorporating unexpected touches. Themes of survival in adversity are established on the assertive and surprisingly sultry opening title track, which cruises in on a background of sturdily thwacked drums, twangy guitar, tinkling piano and dramatic strings, all complementing Peters’s seductive vocal. The first of several songs addressing spiritual matters, “St. Francis” is an elegant Tom Russell co-write featuring McGarrigle-worthy harmonies from Kim Richey, while the superb “The Matador” is a shrewd musing on love and art that would’ve sounded right at home on One to the Heart, One to the Head, the excellent collaboration album with Tom Russell that Peters released in 2009.
More up-tempo moments such as the ineffably catchy Rodney Crowell duet “Dark Angel” and the ringing “Woman on the Wheel” are also enjoyable. But ultimately it’s the quieter, lower-keyed character sketches that really hit home, showcasing the empathy and humanity of Peters’s song-writing at its very best. “Five Minutes” (itself a neat five minutes in length) finds its waitress-heroine carving out a brief space for reflection on her cigarette break, recalling a lost love, musing on her current routine and ruefully spotting her own youthful waywardness in the actions of her teenage daughter. Woozy trumpet and spare, jazzy piano add late-night ambience to “Camille,” co-written with Peters’s frequent collaborators Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg, in which the misery of the protagonist’s downward spiral is mitigated, perhaps, by her apparent inability to completely numb herself.
And the stunning, atmospheric “Idlewild” brilliantly charts a loss of personal and national innocence, broadening out from a childhood memory of a tense car journey to collect an ailing grandparent into a fairly devastating assessment of American arrogance and loss of direction. The chiming closer “Little World,” meanwhile, extols the comforts of home - however humble - as a retreat from a threatening “big and lonely world.” It could be a sickly, isolationist vision, but the heartfelt warmth of Peters’s delivery and the adroitness of her lyrical imagery means that the song rings touchingly true.
Peters is one of those singer-songwriters who, despite a loyal following - plus acclaim as a writer for others -, has never quite broken through to the wider recognition that she deserves. Whether or not Hello Cruel World will be the album to change that remains to be seen, but, if not, it won’t be due in any measure to the quality of the material that it contains. Rooted in concrete, lived details and specific histories, the best songs here constantly gesture outwards into wider, more universal terrain, making of the “little world” an everywhere.
Reviewed for Wears the Trousers.