The poet Mary Oliver once wrote that ‘Every poem is music…in poems we muse (as we say) about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives: our passions, our dreams, our failures. Life, death; mystery, and meaning.’ And so it goes that the best music must also muse on the very same concerns as the poets.
Caroline Spence understands this, and indeed, dedicates the first song on her new album True North to Mary Oliver herself. The album begins with Spence seeking to know the mystery and meaning of her own life and art. All I’m gonna be is a heart on a sleeve, she concludes. Emotional vulnerability and honesty strengthens the power of her voice and her lyrics.
The Gift is about memory, loss, time, trying to escape the past by embracing the present.
Sometimes of course the past catches up with you. Making a Clean Getaway isn’t as simple as just dreaming about it. In the end you can’t escape yourself. The melodies and production on these opening songs are rich and gorgeous, a perfect soundtrack to the blossoming springtime sunshine.
On ‘Blue Sky Rain’ the horizon darkens slightly with her quiet acceptance of the transient nature of some relationships. Change is necessary but painful.
Scale These Walls is an invitation to love. Maybe she can’t get there herself just yet but in her heart she’s ready.
And so the theme continues on Walk the Walk where she’s singing to all the introverts out there, those who know the answers but find it hard to put them into practice. Wallflowers can bloom of course, with a little help from their friends.
The album mixes light with darkness musically too. I Know You Know Me starts with a more ominous guitar sound, a searching sound for a searching song. Matt from the National sang on a different version of this song where her delicate, fragile voice worked nicely in contrast with his. Without him the elegiac strings add weight to her lonely echoes.
Icarus is more of a straight indie rock song, and here she admits to being reckless, a little brave and foolish even. Just call me Icarus, she wryly concludes. There’s quiet ambition here and confidence in the leap.
Her concerns look outwards on True North and The Next Good Time, offering comfort and advice to others. The latter is co-written with Lori McKenna, another wise songwriter of understated profundity.
The album finishes with There’s Always Room which has a light, whimsical quality. She goes back to her heroine Mary Oliver, the poems she reads as ‘scripture’. She’s lost, suffering, but recognises pain comes from love.
True North is an elegant and beautiful reminder to find the poetry, and the melody, in this wild and precious life. A little spring peach to savour.