Two years ago, singer/songwriter Lori McKenna released an album titled “Lorraine.” The title — her given name and that of the mother who died when she was young — captured the personal nature of the album. McKenna here was telling stories that were intimately her own, baring emotions that were clearly heartfelt.
The choice of title for McKenna’s latest release, “Massachusetts,” might seem a little more opaque at first; the album doesn’t make direct reference to the state. But in choosing to name her sixth full-length album after her home, McKenna is making a similar statement to the one made by “Lorraine” — if the last album were personal to Lori McKenna’s life, this one is deeply personal to Lori McKenna the artist.
“Massachusetts” is the work of a singer/songwriter at the height of her powers. Appropriately enough, in “Massachusetts,” McKenna is truly at home. The album is a celebration of who she is as an artist.
A prolific songwriter, McKenna is also a prodigious collaborator. Incredibly talented on her own, she loves the shared experience of writing with others who share her passion. With “Massachusetts,” she embraces that, including contributions from favorite writing partners.
After three “Nashville albums,” McKenna comes back home with the production of “Massachusetts,” as well, which was produced by long-time collaborator and fellow Massachusettsian Mark Erelli in a barn studio.
The result strikes a middle ground between her last two full-length albums. After the polished, major-label Nashville production of “Unglamorous,” the often beautifully sparse “Lorraine” highlighted McKenna’s distinctive voice. “Massachusetts” features arrangements that are richer and fuller than “Lorraine,” but still have a rawer edge than “Unglamorous.” The music here provides a complement to McKenna’s vocals while still allowing her voice to soar above them.
And, of course, McKenna is very much at home in the songs she’s written for this album. McKenna loves creating songs that make her listeners feel something — a task for which both her voice as a writer and her singing voice are ideally suited — and her favorite way of doing that is through gut-wrenching heartbreak.
“Massachusetts” showcases just how adept McKenna has become at doing that in a variety of ways. While both the opening track, “Salt,” and “Make Every Word Hurt” draw from the demise of a broken relationship, they evoke very different emotional landscapes — the plaintive heartache of “Make Every Word Hurt” is a far cry from the rousing pride of a woman leaving a man not “worth the good advice written on a dirty bathroom stall.”
Love and loss take a different form in “Susanna,” the tale of a widower making his way through the world when “there’s nothing down here for the left behind but a bed too big and too much time.” In McKenna’s hands, there’s a beauty even in the sadness, a sweetness in the sorrow.
Home does get a nod in “Smaller and Smaller,” a wistful tribute to a community whose spirit is diluted in the inevitable march of progress but not quenched; a story being played out in towns around the country.
There is light in the darkness, sometimes peering through the cracks and sometimes on full display. On those occasions when Lori McKenna writes a love song, it tends to be every ounce as raw and genuine as her sad songs. “How Romantic Is That” — which, like “Make Every Word Hurt” has sat on a shelf for years awaiting release — is one of the best examples of that, incredibly honest and incredibly touching. And then there’s “Better With Time,” which offers a similarly unvarnished celebration of the joys of a shared journey of years together, the comfort that comes from the sort of familiarity that just seems to belong.
And ultimately that’s not an inapt metaphor for the album; wherever you’re from, at least some part of “Massachusetts” is going to feel like home.