One of Mary Chapin Carpenter's most impressive traits as a songwriter is her ability to avoid cheap sentimentality and instead offer true emotional complexity. The Dirt and the Stars is her second project with producer Ethan Johns, who previously helmed the sessions for 2018's Sometimes Just the Sky. These 11 songs were written in her secluded Virginia farmhouse, though she, her band, and Johns all traveled to Bath, England, and Peter Gabriel's Real World Studio to cut them live from the floor. The organic sound is warm, immediate, and inviting. Through headphones, one feels a part of the proceedings. "Farther Along and Further In," is the perfect set opener. A jangly folk-rocker, it reflects on the existential question of life as always a process of becoming. It's followed by the folk-rocker "It's Ok to Be Sad," a tender but steely paean to empathy, acceptance, and self-care, even during the most painful of experiences: "Let there be beauty instead....Let the cracks begin to spread/is the way you break open....How else could you know you're alright?" She delivers "All Broken Hearts Break Differently" in laid-back country shuffle kissed by atmospheric synth and the open chords from Duke Levine's Telecaster. The protagonist accepts the devastating force of heartbreak, noting its many faces, yet her protagonist refuses to surrender hope. Carpenter revisits that topic later, in the wonderful "Everybody's Got Something," in which she puts forth an equanimous, zen reflection on pain, with her acoustic and Levine's electric guitars entwining above a snare and tom-tom shuffle: "You're not the first, you're not the last/It could be worse, this will pass....One day you'll find you're you again." In the swaggering, bluesy, "American Stooge" she tells her version of Senator Lindsey Graham's hypocrisy: Once a forceful Trump critic, he became a strident ally. In "Nocturne" she offers real compassion: "We're all trying to live up to some oath to ourselves....No king has the power, no mortal the skill/But still you keep trying to see/What's waiting for you at the end of your days." She can sing it because she's been it. Even in "Asking for a Friend," Carpenter knows she's not above life's messiness but part and parcel of it wholesale. On the title track closer, the power of memory reveals an epiphany she had at age 17, riding in a car and listening to the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" on the radio. After Levine presents a glorious solo, she admits to knowing now that all the joy and sadness of life can be experienced in a single, illuminating moment. She knew it then but can articulate it now. By using her own empathic band for The Dirt and the Stars, Carpenter was able to erase all boundaries between singer and song; she entered their experiences nakedly, bravely, and completely, making this one of her standout albums.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek