The Dark Comic Beauty of Innuendoes and Truth: Brandy Clark’s album 12 Stories

By Daniel Garrett

Brandy Clark, 12 Stories
Produced by Dave Brainard
Slate Creek Records, 2013

In working class lives in different parts of the country, divine intervention and the lottery are the only prospects for change, and one hears that on country singer-songwriter Brandy Clark album 12 Stories, especially in the song “Pray to Jesus,” a sad and honestly reflective song. “We keep our crazy hidden until we’re pushed off the deep end,” sings Brandy Clark in the country rock song “Crazy Women,” in which Clark declares that “crazy women are made by crazy men.” Yet, in “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven,” a woman contemplates an illicit affair (two people married to other people), and the possibility of a night’s transcendence: “what’ll keep me out of heaven or take me there tonight.” Brandy Clark sings it in a beautifully clear and earthy voice, feminine and strong. Clark, a native of Morton, a small working class mill town in Washington, and a longtime resident of Nashville, has taken romance as her subject, bringing personal enthusiasm, literary imagination, and wit to that subject. Clark has written songs for Sheryl Crow, Reba McEntire, Hayden Panetierre, Kenny Rogers, Darius Rucker, and Kacey Musgraves—and Musgraves, like Miranda Lambert and Kelly Clarkson, is another young country woman singer who is modifying the content and sound of country music. “Modern pop-country is besotted with the alleged utopian purity of rural life: trucks, dirt roads, little white churches, angelic but tight-jeaned beauty queens, etc. But all the small-town pornographers have created a need for small-town horror auteurs,” accurately wrote Rob Harvilla, for an article on Brandy Clark for Spin magazine (November 20, 2013). It may be important to remember that there have always been some truth-telling, self-affirming women in country music, including Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, as well as the Dixie Chicks and Martina McBride, as Deena Shanker of Salon has remarked (June 18, 2013). Yet, Brandy Clark remains startling.

A woman gets high on marijuana, knowing, too, that when she was younger she would have looked down on a woman smoking weed alone in her kitchen in the song “Get High”: that awareness completes the vision, making the song sweet, sympathetic, sly. Clark’s description of people meeting in a social situation, a woman seeing her lover’s former paramour walk into the room and his response to that, in “Hold My Hand,” is genuinely touching. “This would be a real good time to hold my hand—if I’m your future, and she’s your past,” Clark sings. The song “Stripes” is a hoot. In it, a woman restrains herself from murdering her cheating man only because she hates prison garb—stripes, and orange. It is uptempo, easy to dance to, a country rhythm with rock accents.

“Brandy Clark is most interested in examining, and celebrating, her characters’ (frequently medicinal) means of coping and denial. Her debut is littered with prescription pain-killers and cheap lottery tickets, antidotes and distractions from the realities of adult responsibility. The 35 year-old songwriter leaves her stories to themselves, avoiding any moralizing of her flailing characters. For Clark, who focuses on endless boredoms and dull struggles in her music, relief is king, and no one diversion is better than another,” observed critic Jonathan Bernstein of American Songwriter (October 16, 2013), declaring the album “sparse and clean, and the record feels like an ode to the type of 90s female country music that Clark considers a primary influence.” Yet, “In Some Corner” is a song on 12 Stories with piano, voice and guitar that seems an old-fashion country waltz. It could have been made decades ago. “Take a Little Pill” is very contemporary: ordinary pain relief through a drug, plainly observed; downbeat but too smart to be pathetic. In The New York Times (October 25, 2013), that bastion of willed currency and inevitable commentary, writer Nate Chinen recognized that Brandy Clark “has an outsider’s license, using her formalist skills to create vivid portraits of women on the threshold of moral crisis, or several steps beyond it.”

A woman’s toil and redemption occurs while her husband’s in a drunken stupor, and the singer’s voice precision is beautiful in “Hungover” on 12 Stories. And drink, loneliness, and boredom lead to indiscretions in “Illegitimate Children,” which declares “this is how illegitimate children are born” and “it’s hard to resist that liquored-up lust.” A portrait of an embittered woman’s mundane life—with breakfast, children and a dog to care for, memory of past times, and a current affair—is given in “The Day She Got Divorced.” A girl falls for an attractive, ruined man, a man like her father, in “Just Like Him,” anticipating and remembering that “a fight would start—he’d be breaking hearts and dishes,” but the young woman realizes she cannot continue with that kind of life.

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.