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.

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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Dry Your Eyes Beneath The Night Sky

I’m going to have a review soon of the forthcoming Lori McKenna album, Lorraine.

It’ll be after this weekend, after I get a chance to really marinate in the album. Which, in turn, will be after I stop playing Rocket Sciencerepeatedly.

It’s not necessarily that Rocket Science is the best song on the album; it’s just that’s where space-geek me, intrigued by the title, started listening to the album. And I’m still too enthralled with the beauty of that first song to move on.

For over three years, since Lori’s last album, Unglamorous,came out, there’s been a gradual trickle of new songs from her; one or two or three at a time. Slowly enough that I could afford to spend days savoring each one. It’s been a thrill each time I’ve discovered there was a new Lori McKenna song I hadn’t heard before to enjoy.

So, yeah, last night, finally being able to hear the 10 new Lori songs on Lorraine that I’d never heard before, well, I was just giddy. I’d be listening to songs that are like a straight injection of raw hurt shot right into the heart, and yet I’m gleeful over these new treasures.

And, to be sure, even more gleeful because I’m getting to hear these new songs almost two months early, getting to hear them before most everyone else.

And … getting to hear them early because Lori McKenna wanted me to. Like, not in a she-wanted-people-not-to-have-to-wait sense, but like in a Lori McKenna said to share the album with David Hitt sense. Um, that’s kinda awesome.

It’s funny what can reduce me to pure fanboy squeee, but that e-mail yesterday did. I wrote earlier this week about how I was looking forward to listening to the album and couldn’t wait. Turns out Lori read what I wrote, liked the stuff I’ve written about her on here, and asked her publicist to share the album with me. I left work as early as I could so I would have time to download it that night, and have been listening to nothing but that since. It’s hard to imagine a musician that would mean more coming from. There are plenty of musicians who write music I like, who may be as talented, but Lori is the one whose talent I most envy, the one I wish I could be like.

Her music is emotion. She doesn’t write about emotion, she creates it. She captures it and conjures it. She understands the way hearts work in an incredibly real way, and  recreates the secret inner workings of the heart in words and notes so that they can be moved from one heart to another. You don’t so much listen to her music as feel it. I wish I had her intuitive grasp of why and how we hurt and love and lose and strive. I wish I had her command of words to convey that. Add to that the fact that all writers have a “voice” in their writing — the character and personality that comes through in their writing. Lori is blessed that her incredibly distinctive singing voice is exactly the auditory equivalent of her writing voice. She sings with the same raw edge with which she writes.

OK, this is really starting to turn into the review. I’ll stop here until I’ve listened to the album more.

Have I mentioned squeeeee? Yeah, yesterday set the bar for the Christmas season pretty high. I’m a happy man. A heart-ripped-out, soul-wrenched happy man. Thank you, Lori!


It was sort of early Christmas present, but one that I have to wait two months to fully receive.

For a moment there last week, I was prematurely excited. I saw a tweet about Amazon in Europe listing Lori McKenna’s new album, Lorraine,and went to see whether it was also listed in the U.S. version. And, indeed, the Amazon app on my iPhone showed me that the mp3 download version of the album was available for $8.99. I rushed to a computer as quickly as I could, only to discover that while the downloads are listed, they aren’t, technically, available until January 25.

But it was exciting seeing the track listing. I’ve been a little “worried” about it for a while. If you’re not familiar with my long-standing love of Lori McKenna, here’s an old post I wrote that sort of summarizes things.

Lori’s last album, the brilliant Unglamorous,came out just over three years ago, and since then, I’ve collected a good number of unreleased tracks that have leaked out in a variety of places, and I was beginning to worry that I was going to basically have Lorraine before it was ever released.

Looking at the track list, however, there are only three songs that I already have — The Luxury of Knowing, If He Tried and Sweet Disposition. (I was curious as to whether Luxury of Knowing would be included after it was included on the new Keith Urban album as a Target exclusive track.) Which means that there are 10 new Lori McKenna songs on the album that I’ve never heard before. This makes me a happy man.

In a weird way, seeing which songs weren’t on the album made me happy as well — I’m glad knowing that paying attention over the last three years means that I’m not missing out on some incredible songs that aren’t included. At one point way back when, Lori said that “Make Every Word Hurt” might be the title track for the album; and it would have merited it. As it is, it’s not included. And it amazes me that Lori has such a great notebook that something like “Like No One’s Ever Hurt You At All” could be a lost gem.

For now, though, there’s that two month wait. I read somewhere that she’s planning a local release of the album in December before the nationwide January release, so now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to track down a copy.

After all, there clearly could be no purpose other than teasing me personally to announce that there’s a Lori McKenna song I haven’t heard named named Rocket Science.

Here And There Online

My co-author Owen Garriott has donated a signed copy of our book, Homesteading Space: The Skylab Story, for the 2010 annual Astronaut Scholarship Foundation auction. Bidding begins a week from tomorrow, but you must be registered to participate. If you don’t want a signed copy of Homesteading, you can also do some Christmas shopping for me on the site.

I wrote a guest post for Heather’s official NASA blog, Taking Up Space. I’ve been writing for NASA for more than eight years, and I’ve been blogging for almost that entire time, but for some reason doing the two together for the first time makes me happy.

Along those lines, Face2Face director Eugene Banks this week posted my weekly post-show e-mail to the troupe on the Face2Face Facebook page again this week, which also made me happier than it should. For some reason, going on Facebook this morning and linking to my stuff that had been posted on Heather’s blog and my stuff that had been posted on the F2F page made me feel kinda like a writer, which is always a nice feeling.

I finally got tweeted to today by Lori McKenna, which, again, makes me happier than it should. I’ve heard a lot of new songs since her last album, Unglamorous, came out over three years ago, and I’ve been afraid that I would have already heard all of Lorraine by the time it comes out in January. She confirmed that the album will include a song that I’d not heard of before. This, again, makes me happy.