Review — Lori McKenna, “Massachusetts”

lori mckenna massachusetts

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.

Big Ideas, Little Words


In my office hangs a poster of the Up-Goer Five.

For those not blessed to have seen it, the Up-Goer Five is the brilliant creation of the xkcd comic strip. Essentially, it’s a drawing of the Saturn V rocket, with captions written using only the 1,000 most-frequently used words in the English language.

The poster hangs in my office in part because it is awesome, and in part as a reminder and challenge to myself.

NASA very frequently falls into a very arcane language, full of words like microgravity and PDR and gimbal and a frequent off-nominal use of nominal. If you live in that world, it can require a moment’s thought to think of those concepts not in those terms. If you don’t live in that world, all the sigmas and deltas might as well be Greek. (If you live in that world — nice one, huh? If you don’t, that was a joke.)

The Up-Goer Five is a reminder that my job is to make that world understandable to those that live outside that world, and that doing so means remembering that not everyone speaks NASA-ese.

I was thus delighted to discover The Up-Goer Five Text Editor, a clever homage someone created to the strip. Basically, it lets you try to write using only the same vocabulary used by the strip, those 1,000 most-used words.

And let me tell you, it’s hard.

When I first discovered it, I tried taking a passage from something I was writing and modifying it to fit within that constraint. The results weren’t pretty, and probably made less sense than the original — “When the Sky-Place Space Work Place went into space in 1973, it was the last time the Up-Goer Five went up. The Up-Goer Five had been to a big bright space rock not long before … When New-Up-Goer flies in 2017, it will be the first time a new big up-goer has flown since the Up-Goer took Sky-Place into space in 1973.”

Brilliant, huh?

But it has made me think a lot more about the words I use, and whether they’re really the best ones I could pick. I’m not going to say it’s completely changed my writing yet, but it does help.

Song Challenge Week 21 — A Song You Listen To When You’re Happy

The latest entry in my 30 Day Song Challenge weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 21 — A Song You Listen To When You’re Happy

“The Obvious Child,” Paul Simon

OK, so didn’t we talk about this last week? If I’m happy, I want upbeat.

I would use “Song Of Hope” as my answer, but I’ve already used it for another week, so I’ll try to find something I haven’t used yet to avoid repeating.

I think “Obvious Child” might work. I love the music and tempo, and while I could ramble about the lyrics for a while, at the end of the day, I think it’s going to be OK.

(And, yeah, I know I just posted a Paul Simon song just two weeks ago, but, one, it’s a different Paul Simon song, and, two, I like Paul Simon.)

Regular Richie Feature

Archie Manning's uniform number as the officia...

Archie Manning’s uniform number as the official speed limit on campus. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Looking at the stats for my blog, I am amused by some of the things people have run searches for recently that have led them here. (This is something that generally amuses my friend Richie also, leading me to name these posts for him.) Here are some examples from the last month:

  • fireworks in my pocket — Ow.
  • huntsville depot for the stars and stripes — This one’s not that amusing; I just wanted to say it’s a great program and teachers should take their students to it.
  • is it unrealistic to give up social media for lent — Yes.
  • skydining playlist — I’m assuming this is a typo, but I like the idea that somewhere you can jump out of an airplane and enjoy a tasty meal on the way down. And, apparently, listen to music. I want to do this. Please?
  • story of a happy birthday for my dad 150 words — “I appreciate the sentiment, son, but could you be more concise about it next time?”
  • old miss picture adult — I’m not sure if I want this one to have meant Ole Miss, or not.
  • if you could turn back time question academically — “I’m earning my PhD in Cher Studies …”
  • — “If only I could find a website dedicated to this topic.”

Church of the Unseen Promise


A few years back, “cardboard testimonies” were all the rage.

If you haven’t seen them, it’s essentially a very very simple “before and after” story of the difference God has made in a person’s life.

On the front of a small sign, you write the before, something you were struggling with before coming to know the Lord. On the back, you write the after, how that struggle has been resolved.

Churches would have services were lines of people would wordlessly come out, show the front of the sign, flip it over, and show the back. It’s an incredibly powerful demonstration, a starkly simple and focused presentation of the transformative power of grace.

But at church recently, I got to thinking about what happens to the cardboard signs that only have one side.

It seems sometimes like we have set a very performance-based value proposition for God.

I went to a church service recently where people were being baptized and sharing their stories, and couldn’t help noticing how easy it to discuss God in terms of our lives. “My life is great, so God is great!” “God is good because He does so many good things for me!”

But what if He doesn’t?

There’s a gentlemen in one my church groups who has been fighting a very long and very heated custody battle, and recently marked a major victory along the way. Everyone in the class talked about how faithful he’d been, and how God had honored that, and used it as evidence of how good God is.

But what if it had turned out differently? What if the custody situation had turned out differently. In any battle, there’s a winner and a loser. What happens when you’re on the losing side? What does that say about God? What does that say about His goodness?

The Bible talks about the people who didn’t get to see the fulfillment of the promise. The people who didn’t get the happy ending they wanted. Moses, who didn’t get to enter the promised land. David, who didn’t get to build the temple.

We like to downplay those stories. They don’t fit our version of a performance-based system for rating God.

But what do you do with that when your story isn’t happily ever after?

Where would Moses and David fit in our churches? Do they get to walk across the stage with their pieces of cardboard? “Spent 40 years in the desert.” Flip. “Died without entering promised land.” I’m sorry, Mr. Moses, that’s not the sort of testimony we’re looking for; why don’t you watch from the pews?

God isn’t performance-based. He never promised you a happy back side of your piece of cardboard.

He promised comfort in the hard times. He promised eternity. He promised Himself. We need to stop selling Him short by promising people happy words on cardboard when what He has is so much better.

I want to see a church where people walk across the stage with their pieces of cardboard, and flip them over to reveal blank reverses. I want to see the same thing written on the back as the front. I want to see the back side be worse than the front.

And I want that to be OK. I want the church to be able to celebrate those stories, and those people. I want people with those stories to know that there is a place where they are welcome and valued. I want a church where Moses and David could share their testimonies.

I want to go to the church of the unseen promise. Anybody want to come with me?

For Heavens’ Sake, Why? — Axe, Sexism and Space Advocacy


As you recall, I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago that featured the “Nothing Beats An Astronaut” commercials for the space contest being held by Axe, makers of men’s (and women’s) body wash, shampoo, body spray, etc.

In support of the contest, which will award suborbital spaceflights to winners, Axe has also created another advertising campaign with the tagline “Leave A Man. Come Back A Hero.” The implication of the ads is that going to space would help the winner get women.

Apparently, there are those who believe that the campaign is sexist.

These, presumably, are also the sort of people who believe that fire is hot and water is wet.

Arguably, there is merit to the allegation that Axe, a product which sells itself in an arguably sexist way as being able to help guys score chicks, is also being sexist in selling space as being able to help guys score chicks.

Further, they argue, Axe is downplaying the real important factors of spaceflight by focusing on this sexist angle. Where’s the discussion of science and spin-offs?

The fact that both sides are completely in the right speaks to the greatest challenge in space advocacy.

Yes, Axe is being sexist. As odd as it is to find myself defending Axe, so what? Their entire business model is aimed at men, and aimed at helping men get women. You can’t be surprised that a contest they are sponsoring supports their business model. Nine years ago, 7 UP offered a similar contest. I would imagine view people would be surprised that they used the contest to try to convince people to drink 7 UP.

And, here’s the thing, Axe isn’t wrong. There’s ample anecdotal evidence that back in the olden days of spaceflight, women might, in fact, have been scored via the mystique of spaceflight.

Like it or not, but Axe has a set focus that guides their business. They’ve applied that focus to spaceflight. They’ve depicted spaceflight in a way that reflects their focus.

Saying they are wrong to do so is like saying that deep-field astronomers are wrong for not talking more about the benefits of microgravity science, or that orbital science principal investigators are wrong for not talking about the potential of space solar power, or that the space-based alternative energy community is wrong for not talking about the lessons that could be learned from boots-on-the-ground planetary geology, or that human exploration advocates are wrong for not talking about how astronautics can help you get babes.

As author Douglas Adams once wrote, “Space is big.”

Big enough, in fact, that it can be many things to many people. Why should we explore space? It depends on who you ask. There are countless space advocacy groups, and equally countless reasons to advocate for spaceflight. It makes it an incredibly difficult thing to explain why we should explore space when the answer depends on whose doing the talking and who they’re talking to.

And that may be the best reason for exploration that there is — that space offers so much potential, so much promise, that no one group can explain everything space can enable us to do.

Including, but not limited to, scoring chicks.

Song Challenge Week 20 — A Song You Listen To When You’re Angry

The latest entry in my 30 Day Song Challenge weekly project.

Song Challenge Week 20 — A Song You Listen To When You’re Angry

“Magick,” Ryan Adams & The Cardinals

A song I listen to when I’m angry? Hmmm. That’s a hard one.

I’m not a big fan of angry music. Every once and a while, there’s appeal to an angry break-up song or something, but it generally fades pretty quickly. My good friend Joe Gurner once recorded for me an angry break-up song I wrote, and I got some decent mileage out of that for a season, but I’m not posting that here, I’m afraid.

Generally speaking, I’m actually going to dip into the same well I would on an upbeat, sunny day. It’s all about energy. If I’m happy, I want to build it up and celebrate it. If I’m angry, I want to vent it. Get in the car, turn something like “Magick” up loud, and sing like an idiot until I feel better.

Repeat until calm.