Midlife Songs to Contemplate
Before and After
by Carrie Newcomer
(Rounder Records, 2010)
reviewed by Linda Bieze
Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer’s album, Before and After, features a collection of thirteen original compositions—including many contemplative, midlife songs that have grown out of Newcomer’s reading and conversations with other spiritual people like Parker Palmer. I call the songs “midlife” because so many are both tinged with regrets over past mistakes and touched with hope that life can and will go on.
In the title song, Newcomer, joined by singer Mary Chapin Carpenter, considers “how we choose the roads we travel” and says that we live our lives “by the mercies received or the mark upon our brow.” Each of us tends to explain life by a “before and after” event—whether that be a major occurrence or a minor crisis. In the next song, “Ghost Train,” Newcomer acknowledges that often, because of these “before” events, “sorrow is a constant companion that we just learn to walk beside.” The best we can do is “pack it up and move along.” Further on in the album, “I Meant to Do My Work Today” offers a day-end/midlife confession for those of us who haven’t gotten around to doing the things we had planned because we have been busy wandering through our thoughts, instead.
Fortunately, such songs of possible regret give way to songs of hope, such as “I Do Not Know Its Name,” which tells of the people and experiences through whom we can experience Grace, God, or Tao—a wise old man, the taste of ripe peaches, a gospel hymn sung by a stranger, the feeling of standing barefoot in a cool stream. All these nameless blessings give hope.
In “A Small Flashlight,” Newcomer uses a simple metaphor—a small flashlight in the night—to speak of the hope that helps us find our way. “The way unfolds like I didn’t plan, and only in looking back do we understand that the way was true as an open hand.”
The spirit to change things is strong—even for those living in the “after” times. Songs like “If Not Now (Tell Me When)” voice the desire of activists to see the changes for which they have struggled finally brought about—whether those changes be ordination of women, health care for all, racial equality, the right to marry, or justice and empowerment for the disenfranchised. The words express both the impatience of having waited so long and the hope that soon—now—we will be able to make things change. “It will take a change of heart for this to mend,” she sings, a phrase that she develops more fully in the song “A Simple Change of Heart”: “The greatest revolution is a simple change of heart.”
Newcomer’s earlier albums often featured her gift for narrative (consider the stories told about the patrons of Betty’s Diner in “Regulars and Refugees”) and her humor (think of rollicking songs such as “Bowling Baby” and “Don’t Push Send”). Fortunately, along with the songs of midlife contemplation in Before and After, Newcomer gives us the haunting story of Ohio settler John Roth in “Do No Harm,” the delightful, nostalgic catalogue of Indiana county fairs (like Sweet Corn Days in Oakland City and Apple Fest in Nappanee) in “I Wish I May, I Wish I Might,” and the concluding bonus story, “A Crash of Rhinoceros,” of how Eve helped an unimaginative Adam so unforgettably name groups of animals, including a crash of rhinos, as well as “a pomp of Pekinese, a gaggle of geese, a swarm of bees, and a parliament of owls.”
Newcomer’s voice is as rich as ever, and her acoustic guitar technique and musicality are superb. As on other recent albums, she has surrounded herself with outstanding instrumentalists and singers to add character and variety to the texture of each song. Interested listeners should visit the album’s website, to read the musicians’ credits, the lyrics of all the songs, and to find out when Newcomer will be appearing in concert in their areas.
© 2010 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Spring (April-June) 2010 issue of Christian Feminism Today, Volume 34, number 1. Before and After lyrics © 2010 by Carrie Newcomer, used here by permission.