For nearly twenty years, Gretchen Peters has been thriving behind the scenes of Nashville. She found early mainstream success as a songwriter, with Faith Hill cutting Peters’ “The Secret of Life” and Martina McBride recording the award-winning “Independence Day.” While she didn’t quite break through the mold, she continued to write and record. In fact, Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in October 2014. Now Peters is back with her eighth studio release. Blackbirds is the dark tale of life’s hardships. Gretchen Peters sings songs of death and broken hearts, but the reality grounded in each tale add an ironic sense of beauty to the darkness the album holds.
One of the things that stood out to me the most with this album was the production of each song. Whether it’s a slowed down piano ballad or a more upbeat rocking song, the instrumentation and production add to each and every song’s story and mood. Peters took the production reigns for Blackbirds alongside the album’s guitarist Doug Lancio and pianist Barry Walsh. The title track starts the album off with a haunting, heavy guitar lick production. It’s a murder ballad about killing an alcoholic, probably abusive, father. “Blackbirds” rightfully sets the tone for the whole album from the dark production to the biting lyrics, and Peters’ vocals are equally as haunting. “Pretty Things” is a heartbreaking tale of a woman who hates her beauty because everything materially beautiful eventually falls and is ruined. It’s presented from a view-point of a self-fulfilling prophecy where she believes her outer beauty won’t last.
“When All You Got is a Hammer” details the life of a war veteran back home dealing with PTSD. This has a more rocking, groovy production to the song. This is one of the better written songs on the album, in my opinion. Read the chorus: “they show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill. They don’t show what do to with this hole you can’t fill. So you dwell in the darkness of your soul like Jonah in the belly of a whale. And all you got is a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.” Also, Jason Isbell provides some harmonies on this track, which is a nice addition. Following this song is “Everything Falls Away,” which is a despairing piano ballad about trying to move on after a loved one passes away.
“The House on Auburn Street” is another ballad track. This songs deals with the childhood home of the narrator burning down. Gretchen Peters sings how the town gathers around while the firefighters work to put out the flames, and she reflects on her life living and growing up in the house. The stripped back production and vocals add to the nostalgia embedded into the lyrics. “When You Comin’ Home” is a song about a woman pining for her man to return home. Jimmy La Fave adds vocals in this duet where the couple has grown apart, with lines about the physical home falling apart as a metaphor for the broken relationship.
“Jubilee” is perhaps the best song on the album. Told from the point of view of a person on their death-bed, this song focuses on final thoughts and gearing up to go to heaven. This is a beautiful, gospel like song, with a piano driving the song and excellent vocals from Peters. Also, “Jubilee” features one of the best lines I’ve heard in a song. “My body’s broken, but not my soul. You know it’s love and only love that’s made me whole.” It’s simply a beautiful song. “Black Ribbons” deals with a family in New Orleans trying to survive while hurricanes continue to pound the city. The man has too much pride in the house he built to move, and his fall seems to come in the form of losing his family to the storm.
“Nashville” is an acoustic tune about going home after leaving the one you love. Peters sings this from a first-person point of view. The song is quite introspective with Peters comparing her reckless actions to a train speeding down a mountain or a violent storm on a summer day. “Cure for the Pain” is another heartbreak song about watching a loved one dying in the hospital. The song moves from an angry, helpless perspective to acceptance of the inevitable. Peters’ vocals on top of an acoustic guitar shine on this track; she sells the pain of the situation well here. Blackbirds concludes with an acoustic version of the title track.
Overall, Blackbirds is dark and heartbreaking, but there’s an ironic beauty to the darkness. Gretchen Peters is a seasoned, award-winning songwriter. Her writing on Blackbirds is top-notch; with scenes and feelings described perfectly within each song while still driving the story forward. And as I mentioned before, the production on each track adds even more to the mood of the songs. Regardless of how dark the album may be, the consistency and focus put into making every aspect work in conjunction pays off. Blackbirds is a fantastic album.
If you don’t do Spotify, you can listen to the album here off Soundcloud.