Review: Lori McKenna, 'The Bird & The Rifle' Working with a band of unassumingly outstanding Nashville session players, McKenna finds a balance between literary subtlety and rock 'n' roll swagger.


Review: Lori McKenna, 'The Bird & The Rifle'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Lori McKenna, The Bird & The Rifle Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

The next time somebody asks what makes Lori McKenna's 10th album one of 2016's best releases — and people should, because it is — the answer involves a root-beer popsicle. McKenna uses that homely metaphor a few verses into "Humble & Kind," a litany in 3/4 time that Tim McGraw recently took to the top of the country charts. McKenna wrote the song for her kids; she has five, and the youngest is almost in high school, so some life advice seemed in order. Amid more predictable (though sound) suggestions, McKenna offers an instruction to eat that frozen treat on days that just get too hot, and it's perfect. Not only is it exactly what a mom would say, trapped in the car with her whiners and a bunch of grocery bags, but it's also both widely resonant and specific to a certain time and place. Root-beer popsicles aren't that common anymore; the image recalls a simpler time, and also reminds listeners that time has passed, taking with it a certain lucky innocence that, like the confection itself, might prove as insubstantial as melting sugar water.

McKenna, who lives in the former factory town of Stoughton, outside Boston, has long focused on how heartland life both enriches and limits Americans. Her 2004 album Bittertown is a classic that's been compared to Bruce Springsteen's best work; all of her recordings reach similar high points, sometimes tipping closer to mainstream country and at other times going the folk route. On The Bird & The Rifle, she worked with Dave Cobb, who does for her what he did for Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell: Working with a band of unassumingly outstanding Nashville session players, he helps find the balance between McKenna's literary subtlety and her rock 'n' roll swagger by building each track around the idiosyncrasies of her voice.

McKenna sings in an alto that's powerful but never grandiose, as if she's telling you something important but doesn't want to make a fuss about it. It's an ideal approach for sharing scenes of people who make mistakes, learn to cope, and face limits they may have created themselves. There's a heroic aspect to McKenna's sound, but it's the steadfast kind, never grandstanding. When she raises her voice, it's to utter the kind of admissions that longtime partners say when they're having a talk they'd wanted to avoid, as in the album's devastatingly quiet first single, "Wreck You." Elsewhere, McKenna makes a space for acknowledging difficult realities, whether in the rueful gender fable "Old Men Young Women" or in "Giving Up On Your Hometown," a tour of urban blight worthy of the bard of Asbury Park. (Also great: "We Were Cool," a remembrance of McKenna and her husband's teenage romance that's as wry as a John Prine song or an Elizabeth Strout novel.) McKenna isn't unnecessarily humble, but she has no time for the grandiose. Cobb's production complements her reasonableness by stashing classic-rock flourishes deep within the mix, where they support McKenna's words but never falsely represent them.

As she's continued her career as a singer, McKenna has also emerged as a major Music Row songwriter. She cowrote "Girl Crush" with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey (who cowrote this album's rueful torch song "Always Want You") and has Tim McGraw and Faith Hill on speed dial. Her knack for humanizing metaphors, for scuffing them up just enough to save them from cliché, works in many songs here, especially the album closer "If Whiskey Were A Woman," which sounds like the Eagles song Stevie Nicks could have written if she'd had the chance. But McKenna knows when to refuse the prettiness of well-turned phrases, too; to pair them with blurted-out declarations and everyday asides about being tired or feeling worried, but still loving the ones you love. Because that's what people do, along with eating popsicles.