First, an introductory vignette in which ordinary people in a small town tell their stories to the hairdresser and the bartender. Then, a couple gets into a fight over which classic American archetypes to play or not to play. Then, a married adult woman gets nostalgic over her youthful days as a homecoming queen. Then, a pungent evocation of rural white poverty. Then comes a sad breakup tale, and then another, and it goes on from there. Brandy Clark’s new short story collection sure is well-written.
Album, I mean. Country singer Brandy Clark’s new album, Big Day in a Small Town, out since June, is considerably more musical than her last offering, 2013’s 12 Stories (three more than Salinger, goodness), rocking loud and jangling pretty where the trim, reticent 12 Stories recalled every other singer-songwriter who worked harder on the words than the tunes. Still, the temptation to treat her foremost as a lyricist remains. As a Nashville professional, Clark has been writing for other country singers since before taking to the stage herself, with her name on songs by Reba McEntire, Gretchen Wilson, Darius Rucker, Miranda Lambert, frequent collaborator Kacey Musgraves, the list goes on, and she continues to ghostwrite even though she’s now a big name herself. Critics tend to emphasize her literary aspirations while downplaying qualities like voice and band sound, and indeed, her lyrics could be taught in creative writing class, what with their small scope, neatly turned phrases, plausible characters, telling details, and other irritating techniques that wandered over into country music from the land of the short story. This is an artist who annotates her own lyrics on her own Genius page, explaining metaphors and allusions (re “Three Kids No Husband”: “I think [in] both choruses, what I love is the way we use the cigarette”). Maybe jumping from one mutually exclusive persona to another, from resentful housewife to single mother to spouse with rocky marriage who remains deeply in love, indicates a talent for the kind of performance games we love in David Bowie, as does playing a straight woman in song when the real Clark is openly gay. It also traps her in a very tight box. Between realist fiction and country music itself, she could hardly have picked two staler, more conservative forms.
Never mind the ball-busting, hell-raising rebel girl, a Nashville stereotype that previous generations found progressive and now looks like male fantasy. Today’s New Country Woman takes the Great Bland American Mainstream as her theme. Her music glossy, twangy, encased in shiny resin, her voice distinctively modest and lucid, like your neighbor just down the street, Clark is as much a middlebrow queen as Kacey Musgraves, whose Pageant Material last year jolted the formal stasis of modern country, and by extension good old-fashioned traditional American values, and by further extension the cutesy feelgood blandness that occupies so throbbing a place in the national heart, by setting those elements against explicitly progressive or at least liberal content in a clever dialectical synthesis. But where Musgraves’s signature form is the advice song, in which she starts rattling off ethical directives and conservative homilies only to endorse gay marriage or legalizing weed, and thus reclaiming her form and giving it the finger simultaneously, Clark’s commitment to fictional performance precludes so candid a strategy. She can’t say what she thinks directly, precisely because her stage persona ia that of the writer inhabiting different roles with each song. Yet there are other ways to address normalcy in song, and Big Day in a Small Town cuts juicily into the national heart. The album presents a list of classic American archetypes that Clark twists around in unpredictable ways as she finds new shades of subversive meaning in familiar vernacular expressions, taking pleasure in the mild poker face that has replaced aggression as the new female stereotype in Nashville, and suggesting that the blandness implied by this role might just be a put-on.
No matter how one feels about Clark’s literary ambition, it ensures an extraordinary level of craft. Daubing light, smooth, soaringly poised pop sheen on light, jaunty, strummed/plucked country guitar hooks, downplaying the effortlessness of her bafflingly catchy melodies, Clark sings as plainly and directly as can be while adding a bubblegum flavor to many of the best songs with nothing but textured acoustic guitar and electric banjo, plus a slinky rollerdisco keyboard in “Daughter” that somehow sounds perfectly natural. Whether or not country or pop radio bites, which given the former’s sexism and the latter’s Southernphobia seems unlikely, the whole record is lit up with a gorgeous pop grace that wouldn’t be so hummable if the sound weren’t also so mild, albeit in a cunning, fetching way. Moreover, the verbal pleasures here are undeniable — guess what, Clark is a really good writer, and her lyrics are so concisely worked and so bound up in metaphorical device she doesn’t indulge in a single otiose detail. Everything irritating about her creative writing technique — her gimmicky conceits, her artful turns of phrase (“You can come over/but you can’t come in”), her characters that stand for big concepts, the way she explains the moral of the story at the end — turns powerful given that she’s dealing with archetypes rather than isolated narrative, and given that the archetypes in each song reinforce each other. Her list of vignettes on the title track making today a big day in a small town is both specific and abstract and also funny (“There’s always something to talk about around here”); her caricature of broke hicks sitting around all day doing nothing is funny and also horrifyingly sad (“If we had a penny we sure couldn’t spare it/sitting on the porch drinking generic coke/we’re broke”); her single mother with three kids and no husband working at a diner is devastating: “she thinks about a guy who’s been coming in a lot/she starts to dream and then she stops herself.” Country music needs fewer sentimental tributes to working-class heroism; this isn’t one of them.
So for your convenience, behold once again the archetypes presented on Big Day in a Small Town, and I’ll probably miss a few: hairdresser chatting up her clients, bartender chatting up his patrons, a bunch of ordinary people with larger-than life problems, a character whose rant against the girl next door turns the song into a reverse girl next door tribute, a teenage homecoming queen turned regretful grownup, the poor in their comically huddled masses, two gals who don’t believe in happily ever after anymore, a teenage mother and her hysterical mother, a high school football hero, an angry wife who took a baseball bat to her cheating husband, the tragic single mother, a spurned lover who hopes her ex one day has a daughter so he can freak out when boys treat her badly (mocking rather than mirroring the hypocrisy of such men), a woman whose partner drives her crazy but she loves him (her? the song doesn’t specify) anyway, and a memorialized father based on Clark’s real-life father who (in the song) doesn’t live to see the recession hit town. Count ‘em up and look for a pattern — the only remotely happy person is the football hero, plus maybe the frustrated woman and her non-gender-specific partner. Maybe Clark’s lyrics deconstruct their own conservative straitjacket after all. Through chameleonic commitment to detached narrative, Big Day in a Small Town tricks you into expecting total received craft and nothing else, and the refreshingly hooky music plays out the illusion. Under formalist guise, she hops from one story to the next while casually drawing thematic connections between them. Each song presents supposedly ordinary people who’ve gotten suckered in by the imagined normative paradise American archetypes live in and then get burned. Like the heartland rockers whose aesthetic she knows failed us, Clark indicts the American Dream.