Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

31 Jan

Hello Cruel World: damaged goods make for a fine album of sanguine songs

Hello Cruel World: Gretchen Peters shows you the dark side - and how to survive it

What a trying year Gretchen Peters had in 2010. Worldly and personal challenges hurled themselves at her from every direction. Man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico devastated the shore around the Florida bolthole where she writes her songs. Her adopted hometown of Nashville was stricken by catastrophic floods. And one of her oldest friends committed suicide. On the bright side, she married her pianist Barry Walsh after a 20-year relationship; and her child revealed that he was transgender – a shared journey that she says she found inspiring and disorienting in equal parts.

Songwriters of lesser skill might have walked into all the melodramatic traps sprung by such a discomfiting and extended period of life experience, and turned them into a self-indulgent misery fest, shot through with the well-worn leitmotif of the stoic survivor. Not so Peters. “The grain of sand becomes the pearl,” she sings on the title track of her album Hello Cruel World, setting the scene for an unflinching but ultimately hopeful response to her recent ride on the Big Dipper of life.

There’s no hint of smiling bravely through the tears here. Instead, Peters’ lyrics roll with the punches as she picks her way through the wreckage of “Natural Disaster”, the sanguine home truths of “Dark Angel” and a meditation on the testing of faith, “Saint Francis”. Some tracks enter mesmerising art-song territory: the starkly beautiful “The Matador” with its heart-breaking accordion (courtesy of Peters’ husband Barry Walsh); and “Woman on the Wheel”, which takes an old fairground attraction as a metaphor for the listener’s insidious fears.

Peters further proves herself a past mistress in the art of darkness with the glorious “Five Minutes”, a country-tinged torch song that quietly shows how the lingering power of an eternal passion will always manage to disrupt the most mundane, workaday life. “Camille” follows in similar vein, its muted trumpet intro (from Vinnie Giesielski – Peters has surrounded herself with some serious musical talent) heralding a bleak tale of the other woman that is expertly wreathed in whisky vapours and midnight smoke. And “Idlewild” is a throat-catching child’s-eye vision of parental dislocation (and an interesting comparison with Mary Black’s recent take on a similar theme, “The Night Was Dark and Deep”).

It sounds like strong meat for a casual listen but Peters’ essential optimism and resilience mean that even in its bleakest moments, Hello Cruel World offers much more than a fix of suffering for those who tend to roam across shadier emotional plains. Redemption, a tad weary and accepting of the trials that have gone before, comes with the gentle “Little World”, which seizes gratefully on the familiar comforts of home.

This is Peters’ sixth solo album. And thanks to the gimlet-eyed take on life that informs her lyrics, a voice that sings the story straight, and arrangements that imbue the songs with a stark, poignant beauty, it’s an absorbing transformation of adversity into art.

7 Responses to “Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World”

  1. James February 21, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

    Hi Piers. your reviews are excellent, and what a great focus/theme for the site. I work with a female artist inspired by PJ Harvey and Patti Smith who I’d love to send for your consideration. Feel free to email me if interested in a download of her album. Thanks for your time and keep up the good work on the blog.
    - James

    • Piers Ford February 22, 2012 at 8:47 am #

      Thanks very much, James. Glad you like the blog and the reviews. I’ll be in touch about your mystery female artist.

  2. mcelrathcabaret February 24, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    “Adversity into art”–I like that. Thank you for another great post.

    I would like to let you know that we featured The Art of The Torch Singer today at McElrath Cabaret–enjoy!

    • Piers Ford February 27, 2012 at 9:53 am #

      Thanks Athena, as ever, for your appreciative comments and support – and good luck with your new blog. I’ll update the link in my blog roll.

  3. lovebeyondlove March 1, 2012 at 2:04 am #

    Rhe De Ville! A torch singer for the past 12 years living and performing in NYC.
    Our first Damsel In This-Dress. And she even wrote about it.

    • Piers Ford March 1, 2012 at 9:32 am #

      Thanks for this – I’ll check her out.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Hello Gretchen Peters, Hello Cruel World. Join us 1-1 with the imaginative Nashville writer « Tincanland - February 3, 2012

    [...] WITH early release copies have been raving about Hello Cruel World since before Christmas. Now that it’s out, the rest of us understand [...]

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