Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released.
Breakup albums have their own top shelf in the popular music canon, from Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks to Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak. Staying-together albums, on the other hand, are more rare and more difficult to execute. Maybe that's because overcoming hardship and working through differences require diligence and daily renewals of faith, more subtle and internally directed practices than the emotional release separation allows. On her fourth album (and third with her stalwart band, The Party Line), Nora Jane Struthers walks listeners through the first year of her marriage to her bandmate, multi-instrumentalist Joe Overton. She points to every rock and buried tree root, and shows how mutual care and openness got the couple to the first summit on their path.
Champion is beautifully structured, recalling the best work of Struthers' elders, like Rosanne Cash and Nanci Griffith. It starts out in sweet pastoral mode with the love song "Each Season" and proceeds through playful bluegrass-tinged outings, quiet ballads, some vintage country sexiness ("Let's Get the Day Started Right," which sounds a little like Faith Hill circa 1998), and even a punk-inspired scorcher, the politically-minded rager against the impersonal thrust of technology, "Robot." It's built around Struthers' confident, conversational alto, an instrument made to share subtle confidences. The album's musical variety honors the internal evolution Struthers outlines, from doe-eyed romanticism to hard-won acceptance. During the year she chronicles, Struthers and Overton struggled with her infertility, brought on by a medical condition diagnosed when she was a teenager. Some of the best tracks on Champion, especially the remarkably self-nurturing "Just a House" and the heartbreakingly vulnerable "Show Me," address the loneliness of negotiating a very personal experience made even more isolated by the fact that, as a culture, we have no adequate way to openly talk about it.
You don't have to have struggled to conceive a child, or even to keep a marriage supple, to gain wisdom from Champion. Struthers does write beautifully about the particularities of living within a freshly committed dyad, especially one being tested. "We could be feeling the same damn thing; words get in the way," she and Overton sing, their harmonies weary and tender, in "The Words" – one of the finest songs I've heard about the heart-numbing experience of marital discord. In the end, Struthers finds balance again within her marriage and her life of music-making – her view is not as sunny, but it's deeper, more nuanced. "If I were some leftover thing, that no one in the world thinks they need, I'd make my way to you," she sings, adding a line that refines and opens up the very definition of love: "You see a flower where others see a weed." We're all weeds, waiting to be identified as worth cultivating. Champion celebrates that process, thorns and all.