I take my chances/I don’t mind working without a net,” sings Mary-Chapin Carpenter on her fourth album, Come On Come On. Coming from a singer-songwriter who tends toward the sensitive and self-consciously poetic, that boast sounds like the ultimate overstatement. But this time she means it: Come On Come On is Carpenter’s sharpest, least wimpy record, with songs, imagery, and musical hooks that stick with you lyrically and melodically. Wynonna Judd’s solo album has similar foot-deep roots in pop and singer-songwriter rock, but anyone who thinks Judd’s pleasant but somewhat hollow record is a statement of artistic independence will think otherwise after hearing the straight-backed Come On Come On.
In retrospect, the album’s break from Carpenter convention shouldn’t be a total shock. At the most recent Grammy and Country Music Association awards, she practically leapt into the audience while singing her hit, ”Down at the Twist and Shout”; the performance seemed almost cathartic. Come On Come On has a song that recaptures that feel — the sassy barroom tale ”I Feel Lucky” — yet that track is the least of the album’s offerings. Much like Rosanne Cash’s intensely personal 1990 album Interiors, Carpenter’s new songs (she wrote or cowrote 10 of the 12 here) are direct and unflinching; sentiment takes a backseat. In essence, she has discovered her backbone.
Almost all the songs are suffused with variations on a similar theme — women caught between tradition and contemporary roles who realize that the solution lies with their own inner resolve. Carpenter’s characters assert their independence over feckless lovers (”Walking Through Fire” and her version of Lucinda Williams’ spunky ”Passionate Kisses”), or they simply leave after too many years of neglect (”He Thinks He’ll Keep Her”). In ”The Hard Way,” she commands — not begs — a lover to get his act together. Carpenter has had such unflinching moments before, but this album marks the first time she has sustained that mood throughout an entire record.
In the past, Carpenter’s square-jawed voice has been a little bland, but she sings these songs with a new edge and directness, and the arrangements match her tone point for point. With coproducer and guitarist John Jennings, Carpenter has fashioned hardier, truck-stop grooves that, compared with past Carpenter records, sound as if they have pumped a little iron. The ballads are arranged sparely and elegantly, particularly the graceful ”Rhythm of the Blues” and the hushed whisper of the title song, which wraps up the album like a warm quilt on a winter night. Backed only by a piano on the mournfully pretty ”Only a Dream,” she even pulls off an impossibly sappy subject — the time her kid sister left home.
Carpenter still writes the occasional lyric — ”On some pretense paper-thin that I can see right through” — that reflects her Ivy League roots, and one of the album’s few disappointments is her duet with Joe Diffie, ”Not Too Much to Ask,” a delicate acoustic ballad that doesn’t set off as many sparks as the collaboration promises. On the rest of Come On Come On, though, Carpenter finds her voice, and it’s both emotional and level-headed. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get through this world. A