Trees have long spoken to the souls of poets. Walt Whitman called them ‘palpably artistic, heroic’. Herman Hesse believed ‘Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree.’ Marianne Moore once wrote a poem to save a tree’s life (it worked). Lori McKenna is a modern poet of American life so it is fitting to see her title her new album after those silent friends whose importance and beauty may sometimes go unnoticed. The Tree tell stories of the internal domestic lives and relationships of your average everyday people who have simple, quiet ambitions – the roots of which grow deep underground, much like these songs themselves.
The old saying ‘a mother’s work is never done’ inspires the opening track A Mother Never Rests, co-written with Barry Dean. McKenna being a mother of five must understand this truth more than most. She detaches herself from making the song too personal by singing in third person and directly addressing the children of every mother, asking for understanding and appreciation of the ‘hummingbird in the living room.’
The Fixer was inspired by the story of a husband’s love for his sick wife. Small acts of kindness combine to make a marriage, even if he can’t save her life. Musically both these songs reflect their subjects – thoughtful introspective acoustic arrangements from producer Dave Cobb allow their simplicity to become a strength.
On paper People Get Old sounds like an obvious, even somewhat trite statement but McKenna finds profoundity in accepting life’s realities. A song for her father, it is steeped in memories and intricate details of family life. In the end the song accepts that to age is to live. If we’re lucky maybe we will get a chance to count the lines on our faces.
Concerns about aging continue on Young And Angry Again, about someone wanting to recapture their glory days. It’s probably the catchiest song on here but for me its resemblance to Oh La La by The Faces is a distraction and I found myself singing ‘I wish that I knew what I know now when I was younger’ along to the guitar solos. Of course that contradicts McKenna’s song, where youth gives fire and energy. The Lot Behind St Mary’s also goes back in time, when a married woman looks back to her youth and hopes to recapture the love that once existed. Time brings wisdom but also the pain of understanding what you’ve lost.
The Tree is about what grows inside you and what you take out into the world from where you came from. The apple never falls far from the tree, she sings with a mixture of hopeful joy and poignant sadness. It’s a perfect metaphor for family and the cycle of life. Another weepie on the record is You Won’t Even Know I’m Gone with its melancholiac mediation on how a marriage can face challenges.
The album switches at this point, proving that McKenna isn’t against writing poppy, catchy tunes – she just makes them more meaningful than most. Happy People was originally recorded by Little Big Town but here she has stripped it back with a simple acoustic guitar driving the song. Compared to the polished Little Big Town version, this is like listening to another song entirely. She might write songs for the big guns in Nashville but the gulf between The Tree‘s basic production style and what appears on the charts is vast.
On the final track Like Patsy Would McKenna addresses some of her own concerns about artistry. Written with her co-writing team of Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey she pays tribute to the singing style of Ms Cline and the writing of Hemingway, holding them (and Jesus) up as pillars of inspiration. That determined ambition to always aim for greatness is what makes this album such an enriching experience from first to last.
Sometimes the most important music goes unnoticed, unrecognised, or is just taken for granted. Songwriters like McKenna often work in the darkness, behind the scenes helping mainstream stars to climb the charts. Those flowers might bloom bright for a spell but they often wither quickly away. McKenna’s talent and the songs on The Tree are more like the sturdy old oak in your garden, growing stronger and staying with you for a long, long time.