Rifles & rosary beads
You hold on to what you need
Vicodin & morphine dreams
Rifles & rosary beads
Folk musician Mary Gauthier (that’s pronounced GO-shay) has been a unique and compelling voice that’s never come close to getting her due for decades and with her new album, she may have just created her most arresting masterpiece. This album contains eleven songs and they’re all focused on the experience of soldiers and the family members of soldiers. Every song on the record was co-written by Gauthier and at least one service member or family member of a service member and if this means that the songs are somewhat less polished at times, it also gives the songs and the album the real ring of authenticity. The songs cover a broad range of topics and styles, despite being focused entirely on military and military family experience. Got Your Six is a real surprise, a swaggering bluesy number about the bond of soldiers on the battlefield. The War After the War is from the perspective of a soldier’s wife, struggling to carry on as her husband struggles with PTSD; it’s an agreeable country tune with a beautiful melody. Still on the Ride is a sorrowful meditation on survivor’s guilt. Iraq pulls a real twist on the listener by revolving around the repeated line, “My enemy wasn’t Iraq” is it details the plight of a female soldier dealing with sexual harassment. Morphine 1-2 and Bullet Holes in the Sky are spare ballads of, in the former case, the death of comrades and it’s perhaps the more well-structured of the songs. But Bullet Holes in the Sky packs a strong punch. It’s told from the perspective a veteran that can’t help but find a lonely Veteran’s Day a bitter experience. “Free meal at the Waffle House if I show them my ID,” Gauthier says as she opens the song and the bitterness is palpable as you realize that what this song is saying is that, as a society, we offer our veterans almost nothing of real value in return for their service. The best song on the record is probably Brothers, which has a compelling rock riff that drives forward its tale of a female soldier struggling to find her place in a military culture founded on brotherhood and masculinity.
Gauther’s voice, often haggard, is perfect for this material; she has a stripped down quality to her voice – deeply personal and utterly unconcerned with being impressive and it helps these stories really land. There are a couple of songs here that don’t work as well as the others. One of them is unfortunately the opening track, Soldiering On, which is the only track on the album that tries to be epic, with trumpets and rattling drums. The album works best when it’s simple. But even if there are a couple of songs that are less than they could be, the album as a whole really packs a cumulative punch and it’s an album that has moved me to tears every single time I’ve listened to it. Its perspective is so valuable and this album seems to be saying that, for all that we owe our veterans, we might owe them, first of all, a fair hearing, a good listen to what these men and women have to say. It’s an album that would still be an essential even if it were far worse than it is; as it stands, its rawness and emotional truth really elevate it. I imagine it was incredibly difficult for the soldiers who worked on this album with Gauthier to make themselves so vulnerable in the song-writing here. Well, that’s just one more service they’ve given to us, giving their stories and their perspectives to those of us who have no idea of the struggle and pains they suffer. But it’s also compelling that the album isn’t broken. These songs are deeply sad and occasionally even tragic, but they’re shot through with a surprising hope, a quiet one, but palpable. The people on this record are struggling, but they don’t want our pity; they could use our help, but they’re going to survive one way or the other. But though they may carry on, most of us will miss their struggles entirely. On one track, the chorus ends the same way every time: “Invisible; the war after the war.” Well, with Gauthier’s help, maybe a little more visible now. 4 stars.
tl;dr – folk album co-written with veterans addresses the emotional, mental and physical struggles of returning soldiers with a series of deeply powerful songs; an essential document. 4 stars.