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Brandy Clark is playing for keeps this time

Warner Records

The self-titled album is a rite of passage. Self-titling makes for easy debut project fodder, for example, as a literal means of introducing a new artist to their audience. But what about a mid-career LP? Such a decision could signal a new direction for an artist or perhaps a deepening commitment to the work, a showcase of one's craftsmanship, a greater attempt at vulnerability and authenticity. Produced by Brandi Carlile, Brandy Clark's eponymous 11-song collection is raw and spare, sonically calling back to her debut outing but lyrically offering snapshots of Clark the person, not Clark the pen-for-hire.

Such a move feels especially notable for Clark, who first gained the attention of country fans by writing songs for other artists, including Miranda Lambert, Kacey Musgraves and Reba McEntire. Her debut album, 2013's quietly excellent 12 Stories, brought with it no shortage of critical acclaim and greater recognition, but it was 2016's Big Day in a Small Town, a concept album, that let Clark spread her narrative wings and, in turn, announced her as a bona fide star. Rounded out by 2019's Grammy-nominated Your Life Is a Record, her most mainstream offering, Clark's introductory trio of records gave no doubt as to her talents, but little in the way of insight into its creator. Out May 19, Brandy Clark changes this.

While Brandy Clark is not entirely autobiographical — the opening track was inspired by a line from Forrest Gump, after all — the LP is clearly a collection of songs written with Clark herself, not a publishing company, in mind. Lyrically, this is evident on tracks like "Northwest," one of the LP's rowdier numbers and a tribute to Clark's home state of Washington. Sonically, these songs offer more room for Clark to showcase her singing voice, a powerful, agile instrument that she wields masterfully, using a well-honed sense of dynamics to build emotion at key moments or pulling back to let the story itself take the spotlight.

The album opens with "Ain't Enough Rocks," a short story of a song about two sisters exacting revenge on their abusive father, rife with vivid imagery ("a wolf in Daddy's clothing," the "right amount of limestone" to keep a body underwater) and cleverly constructed rhymes ("That angry sky was thunderin' as they drove him to the Cumberland," "Cops blamed it on his liver so they never drug the river"). Clark's vocal is part spoken, part sung, an effective combination that underscores the depth of her storytelling and allows for moments of catharsis for the listener. Slide guitar virtuoso and tone king Derek Trucks lends his talents to the track, with his fiery licks slicing through Carlile's spare, moody production like strikes of lightning in a rainstorm.

The bruised and broken "Buried" evinces Clark's knack for a heart-wrenching ballad and boasts one of the more gutting lines — and there are many — that she's written: "I'll fly myself to France, first class New York to Paris / Get drunk on wine and dance with someone who ain't embarrassed." While the track's first- and second-person pronouns lend a cloak of vagueness to the relationship in question, it's hard not to hear the song through a queer lens, adding an extra layer of devastation. Clark's masterful control of her voice heightens things further. At the chorus, for example, she allows her voice to break when offering a string of hypotheticals — "If you don't want me," "If you're beyond me" — each "if" delivered with a wavering whisper.

Other highlights include "She Smoked in the House," a tender and playful portrait of the kind of woman — Clark's grandmother — who "bought everything at Sears on layaway" and "put coffee in her cream." Atop percussive guitar, Clark delivers these details with a knowing wink in her voice, shifting into a higher register at the song's more emotional moments, like when she admits, "I hate cigarettes, but I miss all that smoke." "Up Above the Clouds (Cecilia's Song)" is almost lullabye-esque in its gentle, simple melody, with gorgeous harmony vocals from Lucius, who feature on the clear-eyed "Tell Her You Don't Love Her."

A key moment on Brandy Clark comes four tracks in, when Clark and Carlile join forces for the frank, poignant "Dear Insecurity." Carlile takes the first stanza, setting up the song's conceit: Addressing a personified insecurity, she sings, "You take up half this bed, living rent free in my head." Clark takes the concept deeper, admitting specific worries: "My lips are way too thin, too many miles on my skin." The interplay of their voices is reason enough for repeated listens, but paired with such honest, warts-and-all lyrics the song feels quietly radical. Country music has a rich history of women baring their souls, but these days such songs are often overshadowed by the bravado and beers of the genre's male-dominated radio format. Bucking trends and returning to form, Brandy Clark is a beautiful reminder of the potential that comes with opening up.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 23, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT
This article originally referred to Brandy Clark's debut as '12 Songs.' The correct album title is '12 Stories.'
Brittney McKenna