Review: Lori McKenna’s “Lorraine”

Damn, it must be easy
Being in love with someone so blind.
Because I’ll tell you right the only thing I really know
Is that you might change your mind;
Any day you could change your mind.

There’s a particular magic to Lori McKenna’s music.

Country superstar Keith Urban encountered that magic when he recorded “The Luxury of Knowing,” the first song on McKenna’s new album, “Lorraine,” as a bonus track for his own recent album, “Get Closer”: “‘Luxury of Knowing’ is a Lori McKenna song that has nothing to do with my life now but everything to do with a relationship I was in seven or eight years ago,” he told The Tennessean. “It’s an amazing song.”

The magic is the way that McKenna is able to write a song that Urban could claim as being about him. He’s completely wrong, of course. “Luxury of Knowing” has nothing to do with his past relationship; it’s entirely about a relationship I was in two years ago.

That is perhaps Lori McKenna’s greatest strength — writing songs so powerful, so real, so identifiable that it feels like they capture our experiences better than we could ourselves; that you could use them to assemble a sonic autobiography of your emotional history that a listener could actually feel.

And without question, that emotional resonance pervades the beautiful, powerful “Lorraine.” Entire books have been written to try to say what “If He Tried” says beautifully. “Rocket Science” is the musical equivalent of an IV drip of raw, unadulterated heartache going straight into the veins.

“Lorraine” weaves that magic in slightly different ways than McKenna’s previous albums. Earlier albums have given glimpses into the life and heart of the woman behind the songs; “Lorraine” pulls the curtain back further.

On the partially-self-titled “Lorraine,” Lori McKenna writes about herself; she takes the universal and makes it personal. On her last album, for example, McKenna sang about a young girl losing her mother, inspired by her own experience. On this album’s title track, McKenna makes that loss entirely personal — the title also refers to the mother she’s named after. McKenna is singing and writing freely now, about herself, for herself. “And that don’t mean a thing to you, but it does to me,” she sings in the refrain. But the personal is no less universal; the album continues to resonate as the lines blur between McKenna herself and the characters she creates.

And that resonance is in fine form on “Lorraine.” Added to her toolbox with the new album is devastating use of piano; the polished sad sweetness provides a perfect counterpoint to the raw beautiful edge of her voice. “Rocket Science,” “If He Tried,” and “That’s How You Know,” in particular, take the incredible emotional evocativeness of a Lori McKenna song to a new level. If anything, the contrast makes the edge even sharper, cutting more deeply, and the polish more gently powerful.

There’s a sadness that often pervades “Lorraine,” but there’s a sweetness as well; frequently even with the same song. “All I Ever Do,” captures that dichotomy well, an ode to real-life love in a world that isn’t always what we dreamed it should be; a sentiment reflected in a more celebratory fashion in the album’s one uptempo track, “You Get A Love Song.”

“Lorraine” is a step in a different direction after the more uptempo “Unglamorous,” in some ways a return to the feel of earlier work and in others a definite move forward.

With more personal and musical openness, “Lorraine” is Lori McKenna at the height of her powers — the inimitable writing, the unmistakable voice, the intricate emotional tapestries all very much in place but even more confident and mature.

Not if but when you crash and burn,
Somehow you survive.
But you’ve touched the hem of heaven;
For a time you felt alive.

Lorrainewill be released on Jan. 25, 2011. Song samples can be heard on

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