As polarising as country music can be, it’s hard to find a better companion to heartbreak when it’s done well. Kacey Musgraves’ ’Space Cowboy’, Lucinda Williams’ ’Steal Your Love’, ‘Rebel Heart’ by First Aid Kit: these are all country tunes that deserve their place on any break-up playlist. On Courtney Marie Andrews’ fifth studio album ‘Old Flowers’, a bumper pack of break-up ballads await you. Across ten tremulous tracks, Andrews slices to the heart of her sorrow and hope with choirs of acoustic guitars and a beautiful voice that tells only the truth.
“Now I’m the kind of person who acts how I feel“ she sings on ‘Together Or Alone’, and in the case of ‘Old Flowers’ those feelings range through the confusion, agony and emancipation that come from ending a decade-long relationship. Through a track-list that alternates between piano and acoustic guitar but never strays from the raw honesty in Andrews’ voice, this is an album that achieves the tricky balancing act of exploring those themes with stirring spontaneity.
“Is it in the stars? Some age-old truth?/Why did the universe draw me to you?” she sings on lead single and standout track ‘If I Told’. Here, strings draw out in heavy tendrils, imitating the debilitating agony a break-up can provoke. Alongside whispering acoustic guitars played first tentatively and then with increasing zeal as if picked up and played in the middle of a sleepless night, it’s a rare example of a song that can stir old wounds as well play in concert with the pain of new ones.
In its opening four tracks, ‘Old Flowers’ executes its most powerful blows: opener ‘Burlap String’ is melancholy with slide guitar and tripping percussion that nods to the slow onwards trudge towards better things, while ‘Guilty’ employs Bluesy bass guitar to ape the bumpy ride that is new-found single-dom. There are good and bad days, ‘Guilty’ says, switching from ponderous keys to a defiant rhythm section and back again.
There are moments when the pain is so exquisite as to overshoot – on ‘Carnival Dream’, percussion imitates a literal funeral march, its sombre procession spilling over into the title track. There’s no doubt that the agony here is honest, but it’s on tracks that pain is spun and sculpted that the effect is most astonishing. With album closer ‘Ships In The Night’, Andrews regains that magic. “And I hope that you find love/settle down somewhere new”, she sings, a cappella but for a dulled echo of the sorrowful strings that threatened to overwhelm her just minutes before.
In its most powerful moments, ‘Old Flowers’ casts that rare spell: falling in step with the painful limp of a life-changing break-up. Courtney Marie Andrews sees you in your pain and plays music that vibrates at the same agonising pitch, offering her own suffering as a companion for what can be a lonely emotional experience. On her fifth studio album, Andrews is at her strongest: another woman proving that when it’s done well, country music can be truly life-affirming.